The Runaway Friend




After I started writing for American Girl, I always hoped that my editor would invite me to write a Kirsten book. The story of European immigrants moving to the Upper Midwest is very close to my heart.

In the spring of 1982, I moved to Wisconsin to take a job at a large historic site called Old World Wisconsin. This outdoor ethnic museum helps visitors gain insight into the lives of many ethnic groups which began settling here in the mid-1800s.

Author Kathleen Ernst 1982

Old World Wisconsin does not have any Swedish buildings, but a lot of the experiences I had there helped me appreciate Kirsten’s story. The photograph above shows me knitting in the doorway of the 1845  Fossebrekke cabin, home to Norwegian immigrants. I loved helping visitors imagine the challenges and rewards of leaving Europe and making a new home. So I went into the Kirsten project with a fair amount of knowledge about European immigrants coming from Scandinavia to the Upper Midwest.

I needed to focus in on Swedish immigrants to Minnesota in the 1850s. I began at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul. The Society houses a museum, library, and archives (and a very nice cafe!) under one roof.


The Minnesota Historical Society.

I looked at exhibits, read old books and magazines, and studied old newspapers preserved on microfilm.  My best find was a huge collection of unpublished reminiscences about the pioneer era.  A lot of the details in The Runaway Friend came from those accounts.

I also visited the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis. The museum located in this beautiful old mansion documents the Swedish-American community through photographs, diaries, and immigrant artifacts.

American Swedish Institute300w

The Institute is especially lovely when decorated for Christmas!

It was also important to visit the area where the first Swedish settlements in Minnesota were founded.  Kirsten’s family, arriving as they did in 1854, would have been among the earliest Swedish families to settle here.  I went in search of clues that might help me imagine her life!

The Chisago Lakes area, home to many of the early Swedish immigrants to Minnesota, is a short drive northeast of the Twin Cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis.  Historical signs and markers helped me locate significant locations, such as Taylors Falls.


Can you imagine traveling up the river on a steamboat like the one pictured above?


It was easy to picture the landscape found by the early immigrants.


Stone walls still visible in a few yards in Taylors Falls were made by Swedish immigrants.


From the river, lucky immigrants may have traveled to their new homes by oxcart, such as the one pictured in the sign below, to their new home. Others, like Kirsten’s family, had to walk.

Scandia was the site of the first Swedish settlement in Minnesota. In 1850, the first log cabin was built there, on the shores of Hay Lake.  I knew I needed to visit Scandia!

I headed first to the local museum.  “Gammelgården” means “Old Farm” in Swedish. Here visitors can step back in history and experience the lives of early Swedish immigrants in the only open air museum devoted to Swedish immigration in the United States.


I had the chance to see a number of artifacts.  What can you learn by looking at these objects?


Swedish Artifact 300w

Swedish Trunks 300w

One of the guides kindly took a moment to show me this old sleigh.

Swedish Sleigh 300w

You’d want to wrap up in lots of cloaks and blankets before setting out in an open sleigh during a Minnesota winter!

A number of old buildings have been moved to Gammelgården.  On the day I was there, children were participating in the museum’s “Coming to Amerika” program.


It was fun to see the kids participating in activities that helped them imagine life as it would have been for Kirsten in the 1850s.

The next town I visited was Lindstrom, “America’s Little Sweden.”  I found lots of clues to Lindstrom’s cultural heritage just by walking down the main street!





A famous statue of a Swedish immigrant couple is in Lindstrom.


Why do you think the man and the woman might be looking in two different directions?

This statue depicts Karl Oskar and his wife Kristina, fictional characters in a famous novel called The Emigrants, by Wilhelm Moberg.  Karl Oskar is looking ahead to the future.  Kristina, always homesick for Sweden, is looking back over her shoulder.

Before leaving the area I visited Glader Cemetery.  It was moving to read some of the gravestones.  They told stories of real people who had lost loved ones, often children.  I can’t imagine how they must have felt.  The cemetery is on a beautiful spot, overlooking a lake, and I hope the natural beauty provided a little solace to those who buried family members there.



My last stop was at nearby Center City.  According to this sign, a Lutheran church was founded here in 1854. That tells me that faith was important to many of the early arrivals.


The original church—log, no doubt—was replaced in 1882 by a brick structure.


A memorial, with Swedish and English text, celebrates the church’s heritage.


The first Swedes to settle in Minnesota arrived over one hundred and fifty years ago! Still, it wasn’t hard to find evidence that helped me imagine their experience. I hope The Runaway Friend helps you imagine that time, too.

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25 Responses to “The Runaway Friend”

  1. Labyrinth-Living Says:

    My cousin Kathy Bakke does the children’s programming at Gammelgården.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Please tell your cousin hi from me! I had a marvelous day at Gammelgarden, including just staying in the background and watching other visitors (especially the children) enjoying the experience. And you’re entered in the giveaway.

  2. Labyrinth-Living Says:

    And I would love to win a Kirsten book!

  3. Blake Says:

    I would love to win a Kirsten book! She is one of my favorite AG characters and this is one of my favorite books of hers!

  4. Kelly B Says:

    I have never read any of these books. They sound delightful and my daughter would love them. I enjoyed the article. I just love history!

  5. kathleen white Says:

    Please enter me…..Thanks!

  6. Liz V. Says:

    I would like to share these with my great-nieces.

    Hope the Annapolis Festival went well. Tried to sign up but child required, and my friends’ children were tied up with a book fair at their school.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Liz, I’m so sorry you weren’t able to attend the Annapolis Festival event. The facility was small, so that’s probably why that decision was made. I hope we can connect in person another time!

  7. marabird Says:

    Kirsten is a great book. I would love that Kristen book. I also live in Wisconsin.

  8. Elizabeth MJ Says:

    I love the stories behind the stories!!

  9. Tricia Says:

    Love the pictures of the artifacts!

    Having just finished one of Lois Lenski’s regional series (Shoo-Fly Girl, a re-read) and requested a couple of the “Little Maid” books (referenced in my previous entry), I’m keen to see how the American Girl series compares. I guess I need to request a few of yours from my library in case I never win :^)

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Tricia, I’m glad you like the artifacts. It’s fun to consider an old piece and see what story it has to tell, isn’t it? Don’t give up on winning yet – lots more giveaways to come!

  10. Ruth Nelson-Lau Says:

    I know people that live in Lindstrom to this day! My family is so Swedish, I loved the Moberg books, I went to school at Gustavus Adolphus, have visited the Swedish Institute, etc. This book would be SOOO welcome, I hope that this is my lucky week.

  11. Suzanne Says:

    DD and I love your books! I really hope we win this time!

  12. Destyni Gray Says:

    This sounds awesome 🙂 The title is very eye catching . Really would love to read it .

  13. Tracey Says:

    We have begun to read all of the AG mysteries, but this one isn’t on our shelf yet…..fingers crossed!

  14. Sue Says:

    Coming late to this post but I wanted to add that I think your mystery for Kirsten was one of the finest written for that particular AG series. Your familiarity with the period and area made the story so rich, and I especially prized how you were able to sensitively portray the strains of the immigrant experience. It is a beautifully crafted story which I enjoyed both as a parent sharing history with my daughter and as an adult reader. So glad you were tapped to write that story, which I think nicely rounds out Kirsten’s collection and deepens her character in very positive ways.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Sue, thank you so much for your lovely comments. I did want to bring out some of the hardships many immigrants faced–while still crafting an enjoyable mystery for kids–so it means a lot to know that you and your daughter appreciated the story. Thank you!

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