Death on the Prairie – A Retrospective

Front cover image for Death on the Prairie by Kathleen Ernst, published by Midnight Ink Books.I often say that I look for untold stories or little-known events when seeking inspiration for a new book.  With the 6th Chloe Ellefson mystery, Death on the Prairie, I took the opposite approach.

Laura Ingalls Wilder is one of America’s best known and beloved authors. Many adults came to love reading in part by devouring the Little House Books as children. Interest in Wilder’s life is so strong that the LIW Legacy and Research Association holds a conference every two years, where Wilder fans can catch up on the latest scholarship.

The publication of Prairie Girl:  The Annotated Biography, edited by Pamela Smith Hill, created a demand that took months to fulfill. More recently Prairie Fires:  The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser, billed as the first comprehensive historical biography of the author, won a Pulitzer Prize.


Clearly, I wasn’t going to be turning new ground. I wanted to do the book anyway.  Laura’s stories had a huge impact on me as a child, and it was no stretch to imagine they had a similar impact on Chloe as well:

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. Laura’s stories had sparked Chloe’s interest in history, her hobbies, her career and professional passions.

This book led me here, Chloe thought.

Doing a LIW book had been in the plans for quite a while by the time I got started.  I had to wait until the time was right for Chloe and Roelke. If you’re familiar with the Little House books, you know that the idea of home is one of the main themes running through the series. What happens when one parent wants to settle and one doesn’t? How do people know if this is the place they’re meant to be? What happens when best efforts are met with tragedies and hardships?

In each Chloe book I try to let the 1980s plot reflect the themes of the historical thread. That meant waiting until Chloe and Roelke were wrestling with some of those same questions.  Specifically, Roelke is trying to decide if buying his old family farm is the right thing to do, and Chloe is trying to decide if she’s ready to move in with him.

It was an easy decision to have Chloe travel with her sister Kari on the Laura Land tour. My older sister and I visited all of the LIW historic sites together, and had a blast.

Plum Creek

As I thought about the artifact needed to set the chain of events in motion, it didn’t take long to decide to focus on quilts.  Quilts are mentioned many times in the books. And by good fortune, I’d taken a couple of classes from quilter extraordinaire Linda Halpin, a quilt historian with a special interest in Laura’s quilts. In addition to kicking around some plot ideas with me, she made a gorgeous quilt featuring each of the patterns mentioned in the books.

Kathleen Ernst and Linda Halpin

Linda (on the right) and I took the quilt she made for me to the Ingalls family’s dugout site on Plum Creek (small sign in the background marks actual spot). Just because.

I decided it would not be appropriate to include a strand of historical fiction in this book.   Instead, I selected a quote from one of the books to open each chapter.  These epigraphs brought Laura’s prose front and center…and also served as clues to the mystery.

SPOILER ALERT:  Plot points discussed below!

I didn’t plan Kari’s role in the plot from the beginning, but part way through that idea began to take shape. I was exploring the complexities of finding a home, so why not let Kari play a role in revealing a new aspect of that?

Dealing with the issue also let me get Roelke into a philosophically challenging situation. I wasn’t sure how that would play, but I didn’t get any complaints.

The replica cabin at Pepin, Wisconsin.

For me, the hardest part of spending a year immersed in all things LIW was confronting the reality of Laura’s life. I, like probably most young readers, believed Laura when she said of her books that everything in them was true. Nope. Fictionationalizing the Little House books meant more than adding dialogue. At times it meant changing facts.

The books were also very heavily edited by Laura’s daughter Rose. That wasn’t the image I’d cherished all those years. I included a few small examples. However, I chose not to mention the couple of things that surprised and disappointed me the most.

Instead I let Chloe experience the same sense of surprise and disappointment I felt. The subject comes up at one of the first stops:

Marianne leaned back in her chair, eyeing Chloe with speculation. “Are you a book person, a TV person, or a truther?”

“I…um…” Chloe floundered.

“Some people don’t want to hear about anything Laura didn’t include in the books,” Marianne explained. “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.”

“Ah.”  Chloe hadn’t watched the series herself, but she was familiar with it.

“And a few people want to know what Laura’s life was truly like,” Marianne continued.

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

Chloe isn’t able to maintain that lofty stance throughout the story. By the end, she’s decided that further LIW studies are not for her:  The scholarship was important, but Chloe wanted to keep Laura as the trusted childhood friend she remembered.

Me too.

That said, one of the best part of writing Death on the Prairie was the conversations with readers. So many people have their own memories of the books or the television series. It was a rare opportunity to share something that mean a lot to many of us. Thanks for joining the conversation!

8 Responses to “Death on the Prairie – A Retrospective”

  1. Lois Scorgie Says:

    Again today a friend came up to me to tell me what a delight it was to visit the Laura Ingalls WIlder museum in Pepin, see artifacts of Laura’s time, look at the beach where Laura picked pebbles. She knew I grew up in Pepin. So many special events commemorating Laura have been a part of my life. As I’ve mentioned before, my parents delighted in participating in the Laura Ingalls WIlder Society in Pepin for over 30 years. Thank you for, Kathleen, for your fine book.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Lois, your family has been involved in something very special! I loved visiting Pepin–the museum, the wayside, the beach. For those of us who grew up devouring the books, Pepin will always be a place to go home to.

  2. Agnes Says:

    Kathleen, after I read your book, I decide to go to DeSmet and visit the site there and I was not disappointed at all, it was great. I did not know the little house in the prairie books as a child and I did not like them as adult, but I loved LIW’s live and loved the Prairie Girl book. Thank you so much for making me discover her and her wonderful life.

  3. Jan Batts Says:

    What do you think about this news item about LIW’s books? How do you think this will impact/not impact your book?

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Hi Jan – I have seen this news. Here’s my two cents. I understand that Laura was a product of her times and upbringing. Her books will always be special to me because they had such an impact. I will always admire not just the stories but what is, overall, gorgeous writing. Even so, I think the ALA did the right thing. As I understand it, no one is calling to ban the books, just not have the name represent the award. I agree that this huge award should represent the very best in children’s literature, and that does not include crude and insulting language. If I won a huge award I wouldn’t be pleased if it was named after a writer who used derogatory language about women. If the next author to win the ALA award happened to be a writer of color, I imagine they wouldn’t feel too good in the same situation.

      I can’t really predict what, if any, impact this will have on my own book. I hope that the animosity swirling around right now will die down, and that lots of people will remain interested in LIW’s life and books.

  4. Jill Nisbet Says:

    Hi Kathleen, I just got back from Dr Smet. I felt so many emotions, let’s just say it did not dissapont! Hope to visit Rocky Ridge next. I will think of Laura’s books and yours as well when I am there.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Hi Jill -I’m so glad you were able to visit De Smet! I found it so easy to imagine the family there, and walking the actual ground is so special. I hope you can get to Rocky Ridge. I haven’t been there since they opened the new museum, which I’ve heard is lovely.

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