Researching Death on the Prairie

Death on the Prairie / Looking for Laura Ingalls Wilder graphic by Scott Meeker.

Front cover image for Death on the Prairie by Kathleen Ernst, published by Midnight Ink Books.

Mr. Ernst here. As youngsters, Kathleen and her sister Barbara loved the “Little House” books by bestselling children’s author Laura Ingalls Wilder. So much so that as adults they toured the Wilder historic sites together.

So it’s not surprising that in Kathleen’s mystery, Death on the Prairie, Chloe Ellefson and her sister Kari also cherished Wilder’s books as kids, and as adults decided to visit places where the famous author lived. Write what you know.

This post focuses on researching and recommending the car that the Ellefson sisters take on their six-state road trip in this, the sixth book in Kathleen’s award-winning Chloe Ellefson mystery series.

Recognize their wheels from the image below?

Escape To Wisconsin bumpersticker graphic by Scott Meeker.

Kathleen did almost all of the research for this book – and had a blast. One of the few things she outsourced to me was researching and recommending an appropriate make and model.

Now that’s my idea of having a blast.

Chloe fans know she drives a rusty, rundown Ford Pinto. It’s based on one Kathleen owned when she, like Chloe, worked at Old World Wisconsin in the early 1980s. Their model was infamous for its gas tank, which could explode during rear end collisions — and its tires, which were prone to sudden blowouts at highway speeds. Kid you not.

Photo of a green Ford Pinto by Julia LaPalme.

Photo by Julia LaPalme.

While Kathleen survived crisscrossing the country in her Pinto, she decided that the sisters would go looking for Laura in Kari’s car.

Note from Kathleen:  there’s nothing like commuting through mountains on two-lane roads in a Pinto back in the day!

DOP is set in 1983. In those days many car owners considered themselves lucky if their vehicles went 50,000 miles without serious problems. Thus the first criteria for the car search was finding one that could reasonably have less than 50K on the odometer.

Kari and her husband Trygve are Wisconsin dairy farmers, and thus are short on cash and chronically in debt. Their life is one of careful economy, maximum self-reliance, and hard work. So the second criteria was that her car had to be inexpensive to buy, simple enough to service themselves, and reliable.

And the final criteria was that Kari’s car had to be made in America, which many Wisconsin drivers strongly favored.

It was a challenge finding an older, low-mileage, inexpensive, reliable, American car.  There weren’t many — which made it easier to pick one.

The winner turned out to have been manufactured in Kenosha, Wisconsin by the now defunct American Motors Corporation.

Photo of 1969 AMC Rambler sedan chrome plate. Image by GR Auto Gallery.

Image by GR Auto Gallery.

A 1969 Rambler (the final year it was produced) fit the search criteria, though by 1983 this then 14-year old classic would have had more miles on it than desired. Fortunately, Ramblers had a rep for reliability.

Note from Kathleen:  Trygve is the kind of guy who takes good care of his vehicles.

Besides, what sounds better than taking a “Rambler” on a road trip?

Kari’s two-door blue sedan is the entry-level “Basic” model — lacking air conditioning, power steering, and power brakes. Even the dashboard cigarette lighter was optional.

1969 Rambler sedan print ad by the American Motors Corporation.

Print ad by the American Motors Corporation.

In terms of safety, the Rambler was typical for its time. The standard features list included seatbelts, an energy-absorbing steering column, self-adjusting brakes, hazard warning signals, padded instrument panel and visors, safety door locks, rear view mirrors, windshield washer and wipers, backup lights, and side reflectors.

Kari’s was the lowest priced American car available in 1969, with an MSRP of $1,900 (about $13,500 in 2018 dollars).

Only a German-made VW Beetle cost less.

Photo of a yellow 1969 VW Beetle.

Photographer unknown.

1969 AMC Rambler sedan front driver's side exterior photo by GR Auto Gallery.

Image by GR Auto Gallery.

Kari’s Rambler was a rear wheel drive vehicle mated to a low-powered 6-cylinder engine that ran on leaded gas. It often had to be downshifted when climbing hills — or to force it to speed up quickly — as Chloe has to do at one point in the story.

Photo of six cylinder engine compartment of 1969 AMC Rambler. Image by GR Auto Gallery.

Image by GR Auto Gallery.

The car’s 3-speed manual transmission was shifted using a long lever on the right side of the steering wheel column – an arrangement known as “a three on the tree.”

Driver's seat view photo of steering wheel and instruments of a 3-speed AMC Rambler. Image by GR Auto Gallery, edited by Scott Meeker.

Image by GR Auto Gallery, edited by Scott Meeker.

This transmission had a vertical H-shaped shifting pattern. Drivers depressed the clutch (the third pedal on the left above) when shifting gears. They pulled the shift lever toward them and then either up to get into Reverse or down to get into 1st gear. Shifting from 1st to 2nd required pulling the lever up, pushing it forward, and then up again. Going from 2nd to 3rd (top gear) involved pulling the lever down.

Despite being a compact, the Rambler was roomy, with bench seats front and back.

1969 AMC Rambler sedan front bench seat photo by GR Auto Gallery.

Image by GR Auto Gallery.

1969 AMC Ramble sedan rear bench seat photo by GR Auto Gallery.

Image by GR Auto Gallery.

It also had a big trunk, which Chloe uses to securely store a large archival box containing a precious antique quilt that once belonged to Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Photo of open trunk of 1969 AMC Rambler. Image GR Auto Gallery, edited by Scott Meeker.

Image by GR Auto Gallery, edited by Scott Meeker.

Here’s a video that provides a quick tour of Kari’s car.

Video still of 1969 AMC Rambler 2-door sedan by GR Auto Gallery.

Image and video by GR Auto Gallery.

Now when you read about Chloe and Kari ramblin’ through Wilder territory, you’ll be able to envision their ride. Enjoy the trip!

But Wait, There’s More!

Hopefully your interest has been piqued into discovering more about the ‘people, places and the past’ that went into making Death on the Prairie.

You can find a page full of details about it on Kathleen’s website, including an author’s note and discussion guide, a Google map featuring scene locations, photos and descriptions, a slide show of objects featured in the book, a public radio interview with Kathleen, plus additional blog posts, links to booksellers that offer DOP — and more.

Just click on the link below.

http://www.kathleenernst.com/book_death_on_prairie.php

Next month I’ll post an article on this blog about researching the seventh book in the Chloe Ellefson mystery series, A Memory of Muskets, which takes place at Old World Wisconsin — the actual outdoor museum where Kathleen worked, and Chloe works — and German Fest in Milwaukee.

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6 Responses to “Researching Death on the Prairie”

  1. Nijole Etzwiler Says:

    That was fascinating. My husband’s first car was a Beetle that he bought in Germany for $1800, but it was 20 years earlier than Chloe’s time.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Mr. Ernst here. Glad you found the post fascinating. You may be surprised to learn that 20 years after your husband paid $1,800 in Germany for his Beetle, the 1969 version cost $1,700 in the US.

  2. Mary Pettitt Says:

    We just didn’t need ac when we had wind vanes. Thanks for the great research. I thoroughly enjoyed the book & looked up Rocky Ridge Farm on the ‘net. Watching the video of Pa’s fiddle being played was so heartwarming. I’ve been to RRF in 1990, with my 2 kids & husband. The docent let me touch one of Manly’s canes, and I felt a Cloe connection. What a thrill! Thanks for the book.😍

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Mr. Ernst here. Kathleen and I are delighted to learn you enjoyed Death on the Prairie. When researching it, Kathleen visited all the Laura historic sites in the book, including the farm in Mansfield MO. They evoked happy memories for her too. Glad you like my post.

  3. merrylu Says:

    Reading this book, and this blog post, brought back so many memories. At one time when I was in high school our family had four used Ramblers, including one very similar to the one in the book. We made a few cross country trips in them, from MD to KS, including taking me to college at Kansas State University. I will confirm that they did, indeed have a big trunk, and were spacious for a compact. When the used Ramblers started getting scarce, my dad switched to another American Motors car for my younger sisters – Gremlins. 😁

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Mr. Ernst here. Thanks for sharing your Rambler memories. Just as you went from MD to college at KSU in a used Rambler, Kathleen commuted from MD to West Virginia University in her used Pinto. Her comment in the post about driving it in the mountains stems from her experiences with big logging trucks hugging her little car’s back bumper — just feet from its exploding gas tank — on long downhills.

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