“Why is the new Chloe book set in Iowa?” The question came in an email. “Why is Chloe crossing the border? Why not explore other sites in Wisconsin?”
I have no intention of having Chloe leave her job at Old World Wisconsin. Roelke McKenna, suitor and local cop, will remain in the area as well.
But I do plan to get Chloe out and about from time to time. She can travel to other sites for professional and personal reasons, finding mystery and mayhem and historical echoes wherever she goes. Variety will help keep the series fresh. It also gives me the chance to showcase other sites that I find particularly appealing.
That happens in Chloe #4, Heritage of Darkness. Chloe, Mom, and Roelke head to Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa, for a week’s vacation. So. . . why Vesterheim?
It’s a stellar museum. Vesterheim is the most comprehensive museum in the United States dedicated to a single immigrant group. The collection is phenomenal.
Local historians began collecting artifacts over a century ago. The Norwegian government—believing Norwegian-Americans should be able to learn about their heritage—also contributed original pieces to the museum.
It is not, however, a museum only of interest to those with Scandinavian heritage. Vesterheim’s mission is to “explore the diversity of American immigration through the lens of Norwegian-American experience.” I can attest to that. I have no Norwegian heritage, but I find that each visit helps me reflect upon what my own Swiss, Dutch, and Irish ancestors experienced.
The Open Air Division of the museum contains twelve buildings, ranging from the tiny homes of new arrivals to a huge commercial mill. I only recently learned that Vesterheim’s collection has special significance. Sten Rentzhog, in his book Open Air Museums: The History and Future of a Visionary Idea (2007), notes that “The oldest American outdoor museum appears to be Vesterheim. . . “
I had visited Vesterheim several times since moving to the Midwest in 1982, but returned with special purpose in 2005 while doing research for Old World Murder, the first Chloe mystery. That mystery centers on a missing antique ale bowl, and I made arrangements to visit collections storage so I could study Vesterheim’s bowls.
I thought I’d visit, say thanks, and that would be that. Instead, I’ve gotten more involved. My husband and I have returned to enjoy a variety of special events.
Another part of Vesterheim’s mission is to “showcase the best in historic and contemporary Norwegian folk and fine arts, and preserve living traditions through classes in Norwegian culture and folk art, including rosemaling (decorative painting), woodcarving and woodworking, knifemaking, and textile arts.”
I’m a heritage arts junkie, and have enjoyed classes in painting, fiber arts, and foodways. Vesterheim’s combination of top-notch instructors and behind-the-scenes access to artifacts for study is unparalleled.
When I took my first rosemaling class, the Education Specialist spoke of “the Vesterheim Family.” It does exist. There’s a special sense of sharing and camaraderie that helps explain why so many people return to Vesterheim again and again.
Writing a Chloe mystery involves several years of thinking, researching, and writing. I can only pick locations that I love—and that I believe readers will love too.