A Sampler For Rosina

June 22, 2017

Historical objects play an important role in all of the Chloe Ellefson mysteries. Often, finding an intriguing artifact in a museum collection inspires me to weave it into a story. Less commonly I go looking for an artifact to fill a specific fictional need.

That was the case when I decided that Rosina, a fictional German immigrant featured in A Memory of Muskets, needed to be working on a sampler. (This book features a historical plotline as well as the main contemporary plot.)

Rosina has had a difficult life, but she also has a bright spirit. I wanted to reflect this in her handiwork.

One of the places I looked for “Rosina’s sampler” was The Wisconsin Decorative Arts Database, a fabulous online gathering of artifacts from many societies and museums around the state.  Each is beautifully photographed and is presented with known information about the piece and, if known, its maker.

Here I found a sampler that was perfect to keep in mind as a template for Rosina’s. It is owned by the North Wood County Historical Society in Marshfield, Wisconsin.

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“This sampler descended in the Weigel family of Marshfield, Wisconsin. The object label on file at the North Wood County Historical Society reads: “Mrs. Paul Weigel, Sr., the former Anna Franzel, made this sampler in 1878 while working in Milwaukee. This sampler received many first prizes when displayed year after year in the Antique Booth of the Marshfield Fair.” Anna Weigel appears in the 1910 federal census for the community of McMillan, Marathon County, Wisconsin. She married Paul Weigel, a German immigrant, in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin in 1881.” (Database description)

So of course I had to visit the property where the sampler is displayed, the Governor William H. Upham House. It tells the fascinating story of William H. Upham, Wisconsin’s 18th governor, and his family.

It was fun to see the lovely Victorian mansion and its furnishings, and imagine the house full of life.

Best of all was seeing the actual sampler on display!

Want to see for yourself? The mansion is open year-round on Wednesdays and Saturdays, 1:30 – 4 p.m. A visit in warm weather means you can enjoy the Heritage Rose Garden, too.

For more information, visit the society’s website.

Telling Everyone’s Stories

June 15, 2017

I have been visiting Williamsburg for 50 years. When I was a kid, most of the stories told were about the white men who struggled and took enormous risks in their effort to create an independent country. What our Founding Fathers did was amazing and important.

But there are other stories to tell, too. One of the pleasures of each return visit is seeing what new programs have been developed. A change I love? Having the opportunity to learn about all kinds of people who lived in or visited Williamsburg in the 1770s.

When I was researching Gunpowder and Tea Cakes:  My Journey With Felicity, I visited an exhibit that helped visitors understand the importance of religion and spirituality among black people living in Virginia, enslaved and free. Learning about the religious beliefs of enslaved people is challenging, because they left few artifacts or other records behind.

Sometimes sailors brought certain meaningful shells or other items from Africa, and sold them to black people in Virginia.

“Ritual Objects: When they adapted or crafted ritual objects from natural or found materials, slaves sought a direct connection to the natural world and its power.”

This gentleman talked with me about religion and faith among free blacks and enslaved people. Some became Christians. Others tried to keep in touch with African culture, or perhaps blended the two.

I also had the opportunity to attend a play that humanized the pain of an enslaved family torn apart. This black actress portrayed an enslaved woman who thought she had a close relationship with the woman who owned her…

…until she learned that she was going to be separated from her child.

A real highlight of my visit was attending a program where I learned about the importance of music within the black community—especially in slave quarters.  African music helped them feel connected to their homeland. For those who converted to Christianity, singing spirituals gave them hope.

African music is about rhythm. Large drums were sometimes prohibited by slave owners, who feared they might be used for communication (for example, to share information about an uprising.)

Some songs from the time period have lasted. Many songs were private, however, and have not been preserved.

It isn’t always easy to interpret difficult topics such as slavery.  The relationships among enslaved people, free blacks, and white residents in Colonial Williamsburg were complicated.  (Native Americans too! But that’s another story.) I’m grateful to all of the researchers, program planners, and interpreters who today provide a more complete glimpse of Colonial Williamsburg in all its complexity. Everyone’s story is important!

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Some of what I discovered became things that the main character discovered in Gunpowder and Tea Cakes:  My Journey With Felicity.  You can learn more on my website.

 

 

Audiobooks!

June 14, 2017

I’m happy to announce that the first three Chloe Ellefson mysteries are now available as audiobooks!To hear clips, or for more information, visit my website.

The unabridged audiobooks were produced by Tantor Media, and narrated by Elise Arsenault, a classically trained actor, singer, and voice-over artist.

I love audiobooks, and so am particularly thrilled with this development. I hope you enjoy these too!

Rosina’s Cabin

May 26, 2017

“The Old Roelke place” featured in the Chloe Ellefson mysteries is a fictional farm set near Palmyra, Wisconsin. The original cabin on the property plays a key role in the 7th mystery, A Memory of Muskets.

I based the cabin on the one built in the 1850s by a real German immigrant. Henry Gotten and his wife Barbara emigrated from Prussia in 1845.  A decade later, in 1855, the Gottens purchased 80 acres of land about one mile west of the town of Eagle.

Henry cut white oaks and to build a one-room cabin, probably skidding the logs from the woods with oxen.

The building style is traditional German log construction. Gotten chinked the space between the logs with a lime-based mortar.

The cabin site is on the edge of the Scuppernong Marsh, beside a fresh spring. Although the sandy soil was not ideal for farming, in 1860 the US Census indicated that Barbara and Henry and their three children had managed to clear 30 acres and were growing wheat, rye, corn, oats, and potatoes.

At some time after 1860, the Gotten family moved on. Other families lived on the property, but by the time the Department of Natural Resources acquired the property, the cabin was in bad shape.

Happily, the cabin has been restored and is still standing within the Southern Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest.

It was easy for me to imagine Rosina, the character from A Memory of Muskets, seeing this one-room cabin for the first time. When she moved in, the cabin had no windows. She dreaded being isolated in the dark cabin during the winter.

Gotten cabin, back view.

In good weather, she took solace from the open space behind the cabin.

View out the back door.

Over a century later, Chloe is enchanted with the cabin…until she steps inside. As it turns out, all kinds of memories linger there. Can the issues be resolved? Check out A Memory of Muskets to find out.

The Gotten Cabin is located on County Highway N, just north of State Highway 59. It’s a five-minute drive from Old World Wisconsin. On summer weekends you may be able to see the inside, and get your questions answered.

If you visit the cabin, I recommend stopping at the headquarters for the Kettle Moraine State Forest, Southern Unit, which is just a mile or so south on Highway 59. Displays help explain the historical and modern landscape. You can also get information about hiking trails in the area.  Enjoy!

Chloe’s Book Club: The First Four Years

May 15, 2017

The First Four Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder is a book I sort of wish I’d never read.

This book was not originally published as part of the Little House series. The manuscript, in penciled draft, was discovered after Laura’s death in 1957. Roger MacBride, a Laura scholar and close friend of Rose Wilder Lane, wrote:  “My own guess is that she wrote this in the late 1940s and that after Almanzo died, she lost interest in revising and completing it for publication.”

The cover art suggests a happy tale. The first paragraphs of the prologue are truly lovely:

The stars hung luminous and low over the prairie. Their light showed plainly the crests of the rises in the gently rolling land, but left the lower draw and hollows in deeper shadows. A light buggy drawn by a team of quick-stepping dark horses passed swiftly over the road which was only a dim trace across the grasslands.  …The night was sweet with the strong, dewey fragrance of the wild prairie roses that grew in masses beside the way. 

Laura and Almanzo are courting, and all is right with the world.

But in Chapter 1 we learn that Laura doesn’t want to marry a farmer:  A farm is such a hard place for a woman. There are so many chores for her to do, and harvest help and threshers to cook for. Besides a farmer never has any money.

Almanzo convinces Laura to give farming a try for three years.

This is how I wanted Laura and Almanzo’s story to end!

The three years (plus an extra) overflow with heartaches and disappointments. Hail storms ruin crops and debts rise. Rose is born, but in an unsettling scene, Mr. Boast (a wonderful character introduced in earlier books) asks the Wilders to give her up in exchange for a horse because the Boasts can’t have children.

Laura and Almanzo contract diphtheria, and when Almanzo disregards the doctor’s advice and gets up too soon (isn’t that just like hard-working Almanzo?), he suffers a setback and never fully recovers. Laura delivers a baby boy who dies before he receives a name.

And the family’s house burns down, with almost everything in it. In the end Laura agrees to continue farming not because it’s been successful, but largely because she sees no other option.

Laura does try to end the story on an optimistic note. It would be a fight to win out in this business of farming, but strangely she felt her spirit rising for the struggle. Still, this was not what I wanted for the young couple.

This dissonance between happy-ever-after and sober reality reflects a major conundrum most Laura fans confront, sooner or later. How much do you really want to know about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life?

In Death on the Prairie, the 6th Chloe Ellefson mystery, I let Chloe experience some of my own ambivalence. Towards the beginning someone asks Chloe if she’s a book person, a TV person, or a truther; and explains:

“Some people don’t want to hear about anything Laura didn’t include in the books.  Some people love the Little House TV series, and don’t want to hear about anything that Michael Landon didn’t include in a show.  And a few people want to know what Laura’s life was truly like.”

“That would be me,” Chloe said. “I’m a truther.” She was a curator, after all. A history professional.

However, Chloe learns a bit too much for her liking, and at the end of the book she’s come to a different conclusion: The scholarship was important, but Chloe wanted to keep Laura as the trusted childhood friend she remembered.

Obviously, a lot of Laura fans don’t agree.  The Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association holds a wonderful conference every two years. And interest in the Pioneer Girl project, including the annotated autobiography edited by Pamela Smith Hill and other scholarly publications, has been phenomenal.

I spent a year digging into Laura’s life while writing Death on the Prairie.  I loved it, but I also learned a few things I wish I’d never learned.

If, like me, you don’t want your foray into Laura Land to end on a distressing note, I recommend Laura Ingalls Wilder, Farm Journalist: Writings From the Ozarks, edited by Stephen W. Hines. After a great deal of struggle, Laura and Almanzo did create a true home and productive farm in Missouri, Rocky Ridge Farm. It’s a great place to visit.

How about you? Do you want to hold on to the stories as portrayed in the books (or TV shows), or did you devour the autobiography?  Did The First Four Years leave you sad, or simply ready to learn more?

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Note: I am a former curator and love research, but I am not a Laura Ingalls Wilder scholar. For more academic information, see titles by William Anderson, Pamela Smith Hill, John E. Miller, and others. To learn more about the Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mysteries, please visit my website.

Chloe’s Book Club: These Happy Golden Years

April 10, 2017

The cover of Happy Golden Years reveals the ending, but the book doesn’t begin happily.  Instead, Pa is driving Laura across the prairie on a bitterly cold day.

Only yesterday she was a school girl; now she was a school teacher. This had happened so suddenly. I remember reading this book as a child and being astonished that a fifteen-year-old could become a school teacher.

The challenges of teaching are dwarfed by the challenge of boarding with a bitterly unhappy couple, the Brewsters. This episode reaches a frightening climax with one of the most memorable scenes in the series—Mrs. Brewster threatening her husband with a butcher knife. Can you imagine being trapped in an isolated shanty while this was going on?

Garth Williams illustration.

The wife was so disturbed that when writing the book, Laura used “Brewster” as a pseudonym for “Bouchie.” This scene is a prime example of why re-reading the Little House books as an adult provides new insights. Chloe’s reaction to this scene in Death on the Prairie mirrors my own:

That particular scene had horrified Chloe as a child. Now, she felt sorry for Mrs. Brewster. Maybe she had post-partum depression. Maybe she had too many children and not enough food. Maybe the lonely frozen prairie was simply too much.

I wonder how many settlers virtually alone on the endless prairie, with nothing to do and nowhere to go and relentless snow and cold, succumbed to despair. This was edgy material in the early 1940s, when the book was published.

However, the depth of misery Laura experiences at the Brewster home makes it all the more rewarding when Laura is rescued…by Almanzo! The author skillfully tantalizes readers with a liesurely description of his arrival:

The (school) shanty trembled in the wind that every moment howled louder around it. Then, …It seemed to (Laura) that the wind had a strangely silvery sound. …She did not know what to make of it. The sky was not changed; gray, low clouds were moving fast about the prairie covered with blowing snow. The strange sound grew clearer, almost like mice. Suddenly the whole air filled with a chiming of little bells. Sleigh bells!

Almanzo and his beautiful horses take Laura away for visits with her family on weekends, each time saving her from spending two wretched and endless days at the Brewster shanty. The weather is often brutal—minus forty degrees, on one trip. Almanzo’s willingness to come reveal his feelings for Laura, and his fortitude and skills suggest that he’d be a fine life partner.

Of course, all does not proceed smoothly between the two. Laura initially sees Almanzo only as a friend of Pa’s. Unsure of his intentions, she gets the courtship off to an awkward start by making it clear that she does not consider him a beau.

Garth Williams illustration.

When she’s back in town with her family after the school term ends, she watches as many of her friends go for sleigh rides up and down the main street. Almanzo waits a while before showing up—cleverly, I think, choosing to give her time alone to think about whether or not she wants a beau.

She tried not to mind being forgotten and left out. She tried not to hear the sleigh bells and the laughter, but more and more she felt that she could not bear it. Her wistfulness as she watches her friends flash by once again makes his arrival that much sweeter.

Sleigh rides give way to buggy rides, and slowly, the two get to know one another. “You’re independent, aren’t you?” Almanzo asks at one point.  “Yes,” said Laura.

Garth Williams illustration.

I love the image of two shy people getting to know each other on long drives through the country. Laura didn’t provide much detail about their conversations, which is just fine.

On one of my visits to De Smet, a guide gave me directions to an area where Laura and Almanzo went for some of their long drives.

This book, originally intended to be the final book in the Little House series, begins to show us Laura the woman instead of Laura the girl.

Garth Williams illustration.

I have mixed feelings about the wedding scene. Part of me is delighted that Laura and Almanzo have reached the point of commitment. Part of me is sad because the child I had known through the first books is gone.

How about you? What did you like best (or least) about the book?

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Note: I am a former curator and love research, but I am not a Laura Ingalls Wilder scholar. For more academic information, see titles by William Anderson, Pamela Smith Hill, John E. Miller, and others. To learn more about the Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mysteries, please visit my website.

Next up for discussion:  The First Four Years.

Flax To Linen

March 15, 2017

I like to include folk art or craft in the Chloe Ellefson mysteries, and A Memory of Muskets is no exception.

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Rosina, the main character in the historical thread, is a newly-arrived German immigrant with little time for purely decorative handwork, so I decided to feature the process of creating linen. The contemporary mystery features Old World Wisconsin’s Schulz Farm, and processing flax into linen is a major interpretive activity there.

The Schulz Farm.

Linen is made of fibers from flax plants, specifically Linum usitatissimum. Flax plants for use in cloth production are generally harvested before they are quite mature—just when the stem begins to turn yellow.

Flax in Schulz garden. Photo by Loyd Heath.

Flax in Schulz garden. (Photo by Loyd Heath)

Once plants have been pulled, and seeds removed, a process called retting starts to break down the hard inner core within the stem. Some families put their stalks in shallow water. If an appropriate stream or pool wasn’t available, they relied on dew-retting. It was essential to watch this closely and retrieve the plants at just the right moment.

Dew retting flax in France. (Wikipedia)

Dew-retting flax in France. (Wikipedia)

Once retted, a hard outer shell still surrounds the flax fibers. The woman pictured below is pounding stalks in a flax break, which crumbles the shell into bits.

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(Library of Congress)

Handfuls of the broken flax are held against a scutching board (center in the photo below) and scraped with a wooden knife to remove as much of the hard bits as possible.

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(Photo by Loyd Heath)

The flax is then cleaned by pulling it through hackles made with sharp iron teeth.

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(Photo by Loyd Heath)

The tangled bits left in the hackle are called tow (as in, a tow-headed child) and saved to spin into twine.

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Once clean, the long fibers resemble human hair (as in, a flaxen-haired beauty).

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(Photo by Loyd Heath)

When enough flax had been cleaned, it was time to carefully spread fibers around the distaff on the spinning wheel. The photo below, labeled only “Germany,” shows women with flax wheels. The distaff is to the upper right above each wheel, with a wide band holding the flax fibers in place on each.

(Author’s collection)

Here’s the flax wheel at the Schulz Farm at Old World Wisconsin. The spinner draws fibers down from the distaff; the wheel twists them into thread and winds them on the bobbin.

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The small bowl holds water. Spinning with wet fingers helps bind the individual fibers together.

A good spinner could make fine thread for delicate work, or something coarser, based on the fibers and need.

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Once lots of thread has been spun, the wrap threads are measured (on a pegged warping board, just barely visible in the back of the photo below), then carefully put onto the loom. This process is known as dressing the loom, or warping the loom. Each individual thread must maintain an even tension.

An interpreter weaves on the loom at the Schulz (German) farm.

This is the process Chloe agreed to take on in A Memory of Muskets. (Photo by Loyd Heath)

Finally, it’s time to weave. You can see the woven linen cloth wrapping around the lower beam in front of the interpreter.

Schulz House, Old World Wisconsin

Linen cloth is labor-intensive to make, but sturdy. The artifact monogrammed shirt below was the inspiration for the monogrammed shirt Rosina makes in A Memory of Muskets.

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According to textile historians, flax has been used in garments for over 4,000 years. That boggles my mind, considering how involved the process is. I was introduced to the process when I worked at the Schulz Farm way back in the ’80s.

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Kathleen Ernst, Schulz Farm, Old World Wisconsin

I’m glad I had a chance to spotlight it in a Chloe mystery.

Special thanks to my talented friend Loyd Heath for permission to use his photographs.  See more of his work HERE.

A Revolutionary Giveaway – Winners!

March 9, 2017

Congratulations to Chris Swoboda!  Chris’s name came out of the hat as a winner in my Revolutionary Giveaway.  The other six winners entered via my Facebook Author Page.

Chris, please contact me privately via my website form.

Thanks to all who entered!

For more information about Gunpowder and Tea Cakes:  My Journey With Felicity, click HERE.

For more information about Betrayal at Cross Creek, click HERE.

A Revolutionary Giveaway!

March 7, 2017

Did you know I’ve written two American Girl books set during the Revolutionary War? In addition to Gunpowder and Tea Cakes: My Journey With Felicity, I wrote a mystery called Betrayal at Cross Creek.

I’m celebrating by giving away seven sets of both books, signed and personalized. To enter, leave a comment below by midnight, Wednesday March 8. Winners will be announced on Thursday afternoon. Winners will be selected at random from all entries here and on my Facebook Author Page.

Good luck!

Chloe’s Book Club: Little Town on the Prairie

February 28, 2017

Welcome back! I’m glad to be picking up the book club where we left off.

By chance, I attended a book signing at my local indie bookstore last week, and spotted this on the “Staff Picks” table:

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How about you? I hope you’ll share your reaction to the book in the comments section below.

As a child, this was not one of my favorites—probably because Laura was growing up faster than I was. I’ve found the book much more satisfying as an adult.

One of the most poignant moments for me comes on page two. When Pa introduces the idea of Laura getting a job in town, Ma reacts: “No, Charles, I won’t have Laura working out in a hotel among all kinds of strangers.”  Pa responds, “Who said such a thing? …No girl of ours’ll do that, not while I’m alive and kicking.”

I know now that Laura did work in a hotel, and at a much younger age, when the family went through hard times and ended up at the Masters Hotel in Iowa. It’s telling, I think, that Laura presented that topic as she did in this book.

That moment is followed in the next chapter by one of my favorite scenes in the entire series. While walking with her sister Mary, Laura reflects on their improved relationship. Mary had always been good. Sometimes she had been so good that Laura could hardly bear it. But now she seemed different.

Little House in the Big Woods Garth Williams

Our first glimpse of the girls in Little House in the Big Woods. (Garth Williams illustration.)

Laura has recently shared how annoying she used to find Mary’s behavior. Here’s Mary’s confession:

“I’m not really (good). …If you could see how rebellious and mean I feel sometimes, if you could see what I really am, inside, you wouldn’t want to be like me.  …I wasn’t really wanting to be good. I was showing off to myself, what a good little girl I was, and being vain and proud, and I deserved to be slapped for it.”

Laura is shocked by this confession, and so was I! Suddenly Mary, who’d been pretty one-dimensional in earlier books, jumps off the page as a complex and, to me, a more sympathetic character. To further the theme, later in the book Laura confronts the reality of Mary going off to college, and realizes how much she’ll miss her older sister.

A different “sisters moment” provides another of my absolute favorite scenes in the chapter titled “Sent Home From School.” When the vindictive teacher Miss Wilder orders young Carrie to rock her seat, which has come a little loose from the floor, Carrie is soon exhausted. Laura is so angry she takes over and soon is loudly thumping the seat back and forth.

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Garth Williams captured the moment beautifully.

The girls were ultimately sent home from school, a punishment worse than whipping with a whip. Shocking! I think Ma and Pa handled it well.

Again, a little behind-the-scenes knowledge adds layers of complexity to this chapter.  Eliza Jane Wilder was destined to become Laura’s sister-in-law; Laura’s daughter Rose spent extended time with her. Still, Laura painted Eliza Jane as a petty tyrant who seems to torment Carrie in an effort to provoke Laura. That must have led to some interesting family conversations.

As in all the Little House books, the landscape is evoked in vivid detail, and becomes a complex character itself.  “The prairie looks so beautiful and gentle,” (Laura) said. “But I wonder what it will do next. Seems like we have to fight it all the time.”

Laura is just as skilled at describing the town itself, and her reaction reveals much about her:  The town was a sore on the beautiful, wild prairie. Old haystacks and manure piles were rotting around the stables, the backs of the stores’ false fronts were rough and ugly.  …The town smelled of staleness and dust and smoke and a fatty odor of cooking. A dank smell came from the saloons and a musty sourness from the ground by back doors where the dishwater was thrown out.

We’re getting toward the end of the series, and this is a transitional book.  Laura gets her first glimpse of Almanzo’s beautiful horses, her first job, her teaching certificate. She’s in her mid-teens, and her girlhood is fast slipping away.

Little Town on the Prairie

PS – I stayed at a B&B in De Smet while working on Death on the Prairie,  and the proprietor told me that bluish-gray cats are not uncommon in town today. Perhaps they’re descendants of the kitten Pa brought home?

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Note: I am a former curator and love research, but I am not a Laura Ingalls Wilder scholar. For more academic information, see titles by William Anderson, Pamela Smith Hill, John E. Miller, and others. To learn more about the Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mysteries, please visit my website.

DeathOnThePrairieCoverWeb

Next up for discussion:  These Happy Golden Years.