Chloe’s Book Club: Farmer Boy

April 10, 2016

I’ll start with a confession: as a child, I didn’t particularly like Farmer Boy.

Farmer Boy

Perhaps it was because I’d already bonded with Laura. Perhaps the description of classroom bullies was a bit too scary. Perhaps Father’s brand of child-rearing was intimidating. In any case, after a single reading I didn’t return to the book until I was an adult.

By then I was working in the living history world, and everything clicked. I loved the insights Farmer Boy provided into period activities. Mother was expert at weaving and cooking and everything else I wanted to learn.

Almanzo's childhood home has been beautifully preserved in Malone, NY.

Almanzo’s childhood home has been beautifully preserved in Malone, NY.

Almanzo is a very real boy. He resents his father’s belief that he isn’t responsible enough yet to help train the beautiful colts. He  hates being youngest, and therefore the last served at meals.  In the Birthday chapter, he gobbles his breakfast so he can see what gift is waiting—and is chastised by Mother.

Mothers always fuss about the way you eat. You can hardly eat any way that pleases them.

As always, descriptions of both the natural world and farming are vivid and sensory, such as these passages from Threshing:

The wind howled and the snow whirled and a mournful sound came from the cedars.  The skeleton apple trees rattled their branches together like bones.  All outdoors was dark and wild and noisy.

…The fans whirred inside the mill, a cloud of chaff blew out its front, and the kernels of clean wheat poured out of its side and went sliding down the rising heap on the floor.  Almanzo put a handful into his mouth; they were sweet to chew, and lasted a long time. 

Fanning Mill

Fanning mill.

One of my favorite scenes comes from Keeping House, when Father and Mother leave the children on their own for a week. In very kid-like fashion they bicker and do all the things they shouldn’t, such as eating all the sugar and sneaking into the colt pasture.

The barns at the Wilder Homestead are not original, but have been faithfully reproduced.

The barns at the Wilder Homestead are not original, but have been faithfully reproduced.

I am especially intrigued by Laura’s inclusion of the terrible moment when Almanzo throws the stove-blacking brush at his bossy sister Eliza Jane, leaving a terrible stain on Mother’s prized parlor wallpaper. Miraculously, Eliza Jane manages to patch the wallpaper so carefully that Mother never discovers what happened, saving Almanzo from the whipping of his life.  “I guess I was aggravating,” she tells him. Eliza Jane emerges as such an unlikeable character in later books that I love this glimpse of a softer side.

My favorite aspect of Farmer Boy is simply seeing the boy who became the adult Almanzo I know from later books. At times I’m taken aback by Father’s parenting style (particularly in the Wood-Hauling chapter, when Almanzo is hurt but doesn’t dare say so). But emerging from these episodes is a boy who is learning to figure problems through on his own.

I love the photo on the cover of this DVD, Almanzo Wilder: Life Before Laura. (Available from Legacy Documentaries)

I love the photo on the cover of this DVD, Almanzo Wilder: Life Before Laura. (Available from Legacy Documentaries)

Almanzo chooses to buy a piglet rather than spend a precious half-dollar on lemonade. Almanzo manages to get the last laugh during sheep shearing season, when the older workers don’t give him enough credit. In Breaking the Calves, Almanzo takes a chance that leads to a runaway situation:

That night Father asked him:  “You have some trouble this afternoon, son?”

“No,” Almanzo said. “I just found out that I have to break Star and Bright to drive when I ride.”

Most of all, Almanzo dreams of being a successful farmer, and of training horses. We’re not surprised when, in the final chapter, he turns down the offer of a softer life in town.

And then, suddenly, the whole world was a great, shining, expanding glow of warm light. For Father when on:

“If it’s a colt you want, I’ll give you Starlight.”

It’s the perfect ending.

Original cover. (Wikipedia)

Original cover. (Wikipedia)

How about you? Was Farmer Boy always a favorite?  Any favorite scenes? Please share!

***

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:  Little House On The Prairie.

Chloe’s Book Club: Little House in the Big Woods

March 16, 2016

This is the book that hooked me, as a child, on Laura Ingalls Wilder. I wanted to be a pioneer girl like Laura. I wanted to experience sugar snow, and a country dance, and the sense of security that came from being inside a snug cabin on a Wisconsin winter night.

KAE cabin

I’ve reread the book many times for pleasure. I’ve also studied it as a novelist. Why does this book continue to captivate readers around the world?

(Wikipedia)

Original edition. (Wikipedia)

There are many elements to admire, but for me, Laura’s gift for characterization comes first. Young Laura is captured on the page as a real, complex, endearing child.  Most of the time she is obedient and happy, but she also struggles in ways that are wholly believable and spot-on for a child her age.

scan

One of my favorite scenes.

Here’s an example from the “Sunday” chapter:

“Did Adam have good clothes to wear on Sundays?” Laura asked Ma.

“No, Ma said. “Poor Adam, all he had to wear was skins.”

Laura did not pity Adam. She wished she had nothing to wear but skins.

Her frustration erupts with a declaration:  “I hate Sunday!”

I also sympathized when, later in the book, Laura slaps her sister Mary. Mary is often portrayed as perfect. But in “Summertime,” Mary knows just how to upset Laura—by saying her own golden curls are prettier than Laura’s.

There is much to admire in Ma, but her role in the hair color debate has always annoyed me. When Aunt Lotty comes to visit:

“Which do you like best, Aunty Lotty,” Mary asked, “brown curls or golden curls?” Ma had told them to ask that, and Mary was a very good little girl who always did exactly as she was told.

However, we see another side of Ma in “Two Big Bears.” When she slaps a bear after mistaking it for the cow in lantern light, she tells Laura to walk back to the house. Half-way there Ma snatches up Laura and runs the rest of the way. Pa isn’t home, and although Ma doesn’t speak of her fear, she reveals it by pulling in the latch string. Then she takes the sleeping baby (Carrie) from bed and sits in the rocking chair.

I missed the nuances as a child, but now, I understand why Ma wanted to hold the warm, drowsy child in her lap. While Ma and Mary are not my favorite characters, author-Laura drew them well.

(Wikipedia)

Caroline/Ma and Charles/Pa (Wikipedia)

Laura’s close relationship with her father emerges very early in the book. When she is frightened by the wolves howling outside, Pa reassures her—but he also carries her to the window to see the wolves. This scene establishes Pa as protector, and also as a parent who wants to help Laura face her fears.

Pa plays games with Laura and Mary, and plays his fiddle at night so they can fall asleep. His character also emerges as complex and, overall, appealing.

His voice is also the last we hear in the book:

When the fiddle had stopped singing Laura called softly, “What are days of auld lang syne, Pa?”

“They are the days of long ago, Laura,” Pa said.  “Go to sleep now.”

…(Laura) thought to herself, “This is now.”  She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now.  They could never be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.

I’ve returned to this passage again and again. Why did so many of us, as children, wish we could have lived in Laura’s time? Is it the depiction of a lifestyle that appears, at least, to be simpler?

Reconstruction, Little House in the Big Woods, Pepin, WI.

Reconstruction, Little House in the Big Woods, Pepin, WI.

I now know that it was not. Still, it’s fun to revisit not only the books, but the pleasure they gave me as a child. In my book Death on the Prairie: A Chloe Ellefson Mystery, Chloe does the same thing:

Only another true Little House-lover could understand what the books had meant to her as a child. It wasn’t just that she and Kari had “played Laura and Mary.” Or that Chloe had turned a back yard bower into a private playhouse she called Laura Land—soft grass and green leaves magically transformed into a log cabin. Laura’s adventures had captivated. Laura’s struggles had inspired. Laura had been a faithful friend when no one else understood.

How about you? What was your reaction to reading Little House in the Big Woods? Have your feelings changed over time? Any favorite scenes? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

***

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

Chloe’s Book Club

March 10, 2016

Have you read the Little House books lately? Readers have told me that after reading Death on the Prairie:  A Chloe Ellefson Mysterythey were inspired to revisit the classic series that inspired my mystery.

KAE cabin

That delights me. And what could be more fun for Laura fans than having a chance to chat about the books?

Next week, I’m starting a new feature here on the Sites and Stories blog—Chloe’s Book Club. We’ll move through the Little House books one by one. I’ll share my thoughts about them, and I do hope that you will share yours.

First up, of course, is Little House in the Big Woods. If you haven’t read it lately, now is the time…

(Photo by Kay Klubertanz)

(Photo by Kay Klubertanz)

And then, please join me here next Thursday, March 17!

Cooking With Chloe: Ma’s Vanity Cakes

March 9, 2016

Laura Ingalls Wilder fans likely remember the description of Vanity Cakes in By The Banks Of Plum Creek:

(Ma) made them with beaten eggs and white flour. She dropped them into a kettle of sizzling fat. Each one came up bobbing, and floated till it turned itself over, lifting up its honey-brown, puffy bottom. Then it swelled underneath till it was round, and Ma lifted it out with a fork. She put every one of those cakes in the cupboard.  They were for the party.

They sound deceptively simple, but Laura never learned to make Vanity Cakes.  After the success of her first books, she tried to rediscover the secret. On June 22, 1925, she wrote to her Aunt Martha asking for the recipe:

(Excerpt; original letter in the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library)

(Excerpt; original letter in the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library)

Mother used to make what she called “Vanity Cakes” years ago. They were mostly egg and they were fried in deep fat. When done they were simply bubbles, usually with a hollow center and they were crisp around the edges.  …I would so much like to have the recipe.

Aunt Martha responded:

(Excerpt; original letter in the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library)

(Excerpt; original letter in the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library)

The vanity cake that you ask about is just made out of egg (someone penciled in “one or two”) and flour, a pinch of salt; pinch (off) in little pieces and rolled out as thin as you can and fried in hot lard.  …They were called vanity cakes because there was nothing to them.

If you search the internet for “Vanity Cakes,” you’ll find a lot of blog posts written by people who have tried to make them, most with less than stellar results.

At a program last fall two readers, Kami J. and her mom Sharon, volunteered to make Vanity Cakes and report back. They too were disappointed with the results. (I don’t usually post recipes unless test bakers/cooks are happy with the finished product, but so many people are curious about Vanity Cakes that I’m making an exception.)

Here’s the recipe.

The recipe on this vintage card

The recipe on this vintage card is still available at some of the homesites. (No additional credit provided on this card.)

Note that it does not call for rolling out the dough thinly, as Laura’s aunt instructed.

Kami reported, We ended up adding more than 3 oz. of flour.  The first picture shows the better with that amount.

vanity cakes

There was no way we would have been able to make them into small pancakes without more flour. We added about double the specified amount.

vanity cakes

vanity cakes

We fried them, and rolled them in powdered sugar.

vanity cakes

They tasted OK, but were not very flavorful.

vanity cakes

I checked my copy of The Little House Cookbook: Frontier Foods from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Classic Stories, by Barbara M. Walker (Harper & Row, 1979).

The Little House Cookbook

Her recipe for 6 Vanity Cakes calls for 1-2 pounds of lard (for frying), 1 large egg, a pinch of salt, 1/2 c. unbleached all-purpose flour, and a shakerful of powdered sugar—almost identical to the printed card.

She notes in the introduction:  …Not all dishes will be greeted with enthusiasm at the table; some are admittedly historic, rather than taste sensations.  But all are revealing in one way or another.

Perhaps Vanity Cakes were simply a novelty for children used to very simple fare. As Laura’s aunt said in the letter, We did not have many receipts (i.e., recipes) (in) those days for we did not have anything to do with (I interpret this to mean they had few supplies to work with.) We used to make them for a change.

If you’re interested in learning more, I do highly recommend The Little House Cookbook.

Have you tried making Vanity Cakes?  If so, I’d love to hear about your experience!

My Residency with Write On, Door County

March 6, 2016

When I mentioned an upcoming residency on Facebook, several people asked, “What’s a writer’s residency?”

A residency involves collaboration between a writer and the community. Every experience is unique, but in this case I had the great good fortune to enjoy a residency with Write On, Door County.

Write On Door County

The organization’s mission is to facilitate and promote writing in Door County by nurturing the work of writers, supporting readers and audiences, and developing opportunities that encourage broad participation. In two short years Write On has accomplished great things, with more projects underway.

My visit began with a week of solitude to write in beautiful Door County, Wisconsin.

Write On Door County

A warm welcome.

I arrived with a looming deadline for my current American Girl project, so I spent the first several days pounding the keyboard. With no distractions, I got it done in good time.

Write On Door County

This was my writing nook. I loved my writing nook.

Then I switched gears to begin serious work on the 8th Chloe Ellefson mystery.  

Version 2

photo 1

Write On includes almost 40 serene acres. When I needed thinking time, I wandered the property.

Write On Door County

Write On Door County

Gorgeous hoarfrost.

Write On has plans to create a center where writers will be nourished, readers encouraged, and the stories of our land shared for generations to come. The design is awesome—for example, instead of demolishing this old farmhouse, the silhouette will be preserved. (Hard to describe, but the plans are impressive.)

Write On Door County

My visit happened to coincide with a special program held in honor of UNESCO’s International Mother Language Day , February 21. (The date corresponds to the day in 1952 when university students in present-day Bangladesh were killed while demonstrating for recognition of Bengali as one of two national languages of East Pakistan.)

Write On sponsored a poetry reading at the Miller Art Museum in Sturgeon Bay.

Jerod Santek, Write On's Executive Director, explains the background of this important event.

Jerod Santek, Write On’s Executive Director, explains the background of this important event.

Local residents read poetry in Polish, German, Spanish, Urdu, Bengali, Hindi, Hungarian, Romanian, and Walloon. Listening to languages I do not speak let me hear their cadence and rhythm. The program was lovely and thought-provoking.

The following weekend I was involved in a program with the Peninsula Music Festival‘s FebFest. Almost a year ago organizers invited me to participate in a concert of Nordic music, inspired by the Scandinavian themes in the Chloe Ellefson mysteries—especially The Light Keeper’s Legacy.

Four musicians performed pieces by Danish, Norwegian, Finnish, and Swedish composers.

Peninsula Music Festival Photo

(Peninsula Music Festival photo.)

I read excerpts from the Chloe novels that emphasized the power of place, and closed with a poem.

Peninsula Music Festival Photo

(Peninsula Music Festival photo.)

We talked about artists of all kinds who were inspired by their landscape.  We talked about the elements music and writing share.  It was a special afternoon.

Write On Door County

Judith Jackson, Karen Nelson, Lori Meyer, Janet Sutter, and me.

On my final day I taught a workshop called Writing Your Family Stories, Your Way. It was a diverse group, united in a wish to capture family history. I hope everyone left inspired to keep writing.

Write On Door County

I certainly did! I’m grateful to Write On, Door County for this opportunity.

***

Write On, Door County offers many special programs.  Not local?  Combine a vacation to Door County with a writing workshop.  Check the Programs page for more details.

Gratitude Giveaway Winners!

March 3, 2016

Congratulations to Sue Basler, Ellen Bogner, Claudia Daniel, Patricia Jones, Michelle Bie Love, Jane Nelson, and Bonnie Schaefer! Each won the Chloe Ellefson mystery of their choice.

Winners were chosen by random drawing from entries here and on my Facebook Author page.  Winners, please use my contact form to reach me.

GratitudeGiveawayWinnersHandsFB563w

Thanks to all who entered! We’ll have another giveaway soon.

Gratitude Giveaway!

March 1, 2016

GratitudeGiveawayHandsFB563w-1

The 7th Chloe Ellefson mystery, A Memory of Muskets, is in the publishing pipeline and available for preorder. I think it’s time for a Gratitude Giveaway!

Seven winners will receive a signed and personalized trade paperback copy of the Chloe Ellefson mystery of their choice. To enter, leave a comment below by midnight US Central time, Wednesday, March 2nd.

Winners will be chosen by random drawing from all entries here and on my Facebook Author Page. I’ll announce the winners on Thursday, March 3rd.

To learn more about the Chloe mysteries, visit my website.

I wouldn’t have been able to write seven Chloe mysteries without the support of many wonderful readers!  I’m grateful.  Good luck!

PS – I’ll hold a giveaway for American Girl fans later in the spring. Stay tuned.

A Memory of Muskets – Sneak Peek

February 17, 2016

After working for a year or more to write a manuscript, it’s always exciting to see the cover! Here’s the design for the 7th Chloe Ellefson mystery.

Memory of Muskets

And, here’s a sneak peek at what’s inside.

Curator Chloe Ellefson is happily planning to spotlight home-front challenges and German immigrants at Old World Wisconsin’s first Civil War reenactment—but her overbearing boss scorns her ideas and proposes staging a mock battle. And when a reenactor is found dead at one of the historic site’s German farms, Chloe’s boyfriend, cop Roelke McKenna, suspects murder.   

The more Roelke learns about reenacting, the more he fears that a killer will join the ranks at Chloe’s special event. Then Chloe discovers a disturbing secret about Roelke’s Civil War-era ancestors. Together they struggle to solve crimes past and present . . . before Chloe loses her job and another reenactor loses his life.

Kathleen ErnstMuch of A Memory of Muskets takes place at Old World Wisconsin.  After several adventures in other locations, Chloe needed to get back to her own site. In the way-back days (1980s) I coordinated Old World’s Civil War event, with some dedicated reenactors providing the programming. I also was involved in reenacting myself.

Plot-wise, I felt it was time to learn more about Roelke McKenna’s background. Roelke is of German descent on his mother’s side, so I chose to focus on the experience of his forebears.

Can you imagine making the enormous decision to immigrate, only to face civil war? Some new arrivals had left Europe in part to avoid conscription, and wanted only to create a new home and live in peace. Others wanted to prove their worth, and support the government which had provided them a home.

Many readers say they particularly enjoy the Chloe mysteries that feature a historic plot strand braided with the contemporary mystery. In A Memory of Muskets you’ll meet Rosina, one of Roelke’s ancestors. (And for my Nordic friends—yes, it was tempting to write about the 15th Wisconsin, composed of Scandinavian immigrants! Perhaps another time.)

Death on the Prairie readers know that Chloe has a troubling experience in an old building at the end. She’ll confront that issue in the new book.

I’ll share more when the publication date (October, 2016) approaches. However, the book is already available for pre-order. (Including from independent bookstores!)

I love writing the Chloe mysteries, and sharing special places and stories. I wouldn’t be able to keep going without you wonderful readers.  Thank you!

Meet Carole Estby Dagg

February 16, 2016

I’m delighted to welcome author Carole Estby Dagg to Sites and Stories.  She’s written two books about topics that fascinate me, so we must be kindred souls!

Her new book is Sweet Home Alaska:

Terpsichore has dreamed about becoming a pioneer like Laura Ingalls Wilder, and now, with only two days to pack, her family is joining 201 other families on the way to Alaska. Most of her family comes to love Alaska, but her mother misses life back in Wisconsin. What can Terpsichore do to convince her mother to stay? Inspired by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy, she develops a plan that includes a giant pumpkin and a recipe for jellied moose nose.

* * *

My favorite thing about Kathleen’s blog is the behind-the-scenes look she gives readers into her research process, so today I’m sharing some photographs that inspired settings and scenes for my book, Sweet Home Alaska.

Woman at pump – Date stamp June 27, 1935  Associated Press Photo

Palmer woman at pump jpeg

You’d probably guess that this photo was taken during the Great Depression, but would you have guessed that it was taken in Palmer Alaska?  Until my son bought a rustic house in Palmer next to a potato field out the outskirts of Palmer, I never knew that one of President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs moved 202 families that were on relief up to Alaska to become self-sufficient farmers.

Tent city – Citation: AMRC b70-19-106  J. J. Delaney Collection; Anchorage Museum

Palmer tent city B1970_019_106

Since there are only a few rows of tents in this picture, it must have been taken just after the first batch of colonists arrived from northern Minnesota. Two weeks later the second batch of colonists arrived from Wisconsin and Michigan. This photo helped me ground the chapters that took place after the colonists arrived in Palmer.

Children around grave  – Date stamp: July 1, 1935

Palmer grave jpeg

From the postage stamp-sized photo on eBay, I thought I was buying a photo of four children around a garden plot, but when I received the larger original, I realized that the photo was of four children bringing flowers to a tiny grave, one of the first in the new colony.

Teacher with five children in nearly identical parkas – Associated Press Photo dated Nov. 19, 1935

Palmer parka kids w teacher

The teacher in this photograph, Miss Lorinda Ward, came to Alaska from Columbia University. She would have been housed in a two-story white dormitory that still stands today. In rural areas like Palmer, families all ordered from the same Sears or Montgomery Ward catalogs, so it wasn’t unusual to see kids dressed alike.

Carole is a retired librarian and author of The Year We Were Famous (Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011) and Sweet Home Alaska (Nancy Paulsen imprint of Penguin Books for Young Readers, 2016.) She writes in Everett, Washington and a converted woodshed on San Juan Island, where she is visited by deer and the neighbor’s goats.

Visit her at www.CaroleEstbyDagg.com

Laura Land Tour: Bonus!

February 14, 2016

It’s been great fun to showcase the Laura Ingalls Wilder homesites featured in Death on the Prairie: A Chloe Ellefson Mystery. There are also a few sites I wasn’t able to include (much as I wanted to).

If you’re driving from Pepin, WI, to Walnut Grove, MN, an easy detour takes you to the Spring Valley Methodist Church Museum.

Methodist Church Museum

In 1873, Almanzo Wilder’s parents moved their family from New York to Spring Valley, MN. Six years later Almanzo moved to South Dakota, where he married Laura. After multiple tragedies, Almanzo’s parents evidently encouraged Almanzo, Laura, and daughter Rose to recuperate in Spring Valley. They arrived in May, 1890, and stayed until October, 1891.

Methodist Church MuseumThe museum includes exhibits about the extended Wilder family, as well as other items of local interest.

If you’re heading west, and have even more time for a detour, consider a stop in Vinton, IA, where Mary Ingalls attended the Iowa College for the Blind.

Mary Ingalls School Site

I understand there are exhibits inside. The old building was closed for repairs when I visited, but I enjoyed imagining Mary on the campus.

Mary Ingalls School Site

And finally, Farmer Boy readers should keep the Wilder Homestead in Malone, NY on their travel wish list.

Version 2

Almanzo’s boyhood home has been beautifully restored.

Wilder Homestead

We owe another debt of thanks to the local residents who formed the Laura and Almanzo Wilder Association, and purchased the land in the 1980s. Archaeological studies determined that the house was original.

Wilder Homestead

During my tour, it was very easy to picture the Wilder family in those rooms. (Alas, no interior photos allowed.) My favorite moment may have been examining the parlor wallpaper for traces of stove blacking.

The original outbuildings were gone, so the Wilder Association has replicated those structures. They relied on sketches Almanzo made for Laura when she wrote Farmer Boy.

Wilder Homestead

Since so many scenes from Farmer Boy take place in the barns, that part of the tour was equally poignant.

Wilder Homestead

The site is also special because the local landscape remains rural.

Wilder Homestead

Wilder HomesteadI expect the Wilders saw deer in the orchard too.

* * *

AMeet Caroline: An American Girln aside:  Malone, NY, is not close to any other Laura sites. However, it is an easy drive from Sackets Harbor, NY, setting for my Caroline Abbott books from American Girl.

And, I’ve yet to visit the Keystone Area Historical Society in South Dakota.  Carrie Ingalls lived here for 35 years, and the museum’s collection includes family memorabilia. I think another road trip is in order…


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