Archive for the ‘Death on the Prairie’ Category

Death on the Prairie Giveaway

June 26, 2018

This year from January through August I’m holding monthly giveaways of my Chloe Ellefson mysteries. The featured book for June is the sixth in the series, Death on the Prairie.

8ChloeMysteriesGiveawayDOPFB476x476w

To enter the giveaway for Death on the Prairie, just leave a comment below before 11:59 PM (Central US time), June 27, 2018. One entry per person, please.

Three winners will be chosen at random from all entries here and on my Facebook Author Page, and announced the next day. Each winner will receive a personalized and signed trade paperback copy of Death on the Prairie
Good luck!

Death on the Prairie – A Retrospective

June 22, 2018

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.

prairie

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!


Researching Death on the Prairie

June 20, 2018

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.

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?

***

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?

***

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.

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:

img_4419

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.

school

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?

# # #

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.

Bringing Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Stories to Life in Quilts – Part 2

February 21, 2017

DeathOnThePrairieCoverWebI’m proud to have talented quilt teacher, designer, and historian Linda Halpin visit Sites and Stories. Last time, Linda wrote about how she came to study the quilts referenced in the famous Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

She also helped me out when I decided that a quilt would be at the center of Death on the Prairie, the 6th Chloe Ellefson mystery.

 Here’s Linda’s story.

* * *

It turns out my connection to Laura wasn’t done. Many years after Quilting With Laura was published, I met Kathleen Ernst in one of my classes. Kathleen had written several books for the American Girl company. My daughter was a big fan of American Girl. It was a line of book characters and dolls that taught history through different eras. Their stories were rounded out by books on cooking, period clothing, and current events. The dolls encouraged imagination as they taught history.

Fast forward several years after that first encounter to when Kathleen contacted me about a new project she was working on. She had expanded her writing to include books for adults with a line of mystery books based on a woman named Chloe Ellefson. Chloe worked at a living history museum, and like the American Girl characters, she brought artifacts to life by studying what life was like when the artifacts were used, who used them, how they were used, what life was like at the time.  It was all the things I loved about Little House and American Girl, but this time geared towards adults.

Chloe Ellefson mysteries

I love Kathleen’s story telling style. She interweaves story lines back and forth from historical to present day as Chloe investigates her artifacts. Kathleen’s new project was a story in which Chloe is given a quilt said to have been made by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and she sets out to investigate if this could really be true. What Kathleen wanted from me was a quilt that could help tell Chloe’s story, one that incorporated the blocks Laura talked about in her books.

My prior investigation told me that there were only three patterns Laura mentions by name:  Nine Patch, Bear’s Track, and Doves in the Window. My quilt research taught me that at the time Laura was learning to quilt, patterns didn’t have specific names the way they do today. They were simply called ‘patchwork.’ It wasn’t until 1889 that patterns began to be identified by different names, mostly as a marketing tool for Ladies Art Company, a mail order catalog where people could order patterns.

Prior to that, patterns were spread person to person, or blocks were printed in women’ magazine of the day, such as Godey’s Ladies Magazine. Interestingly enough, sewing was so much a part of every day life that only an ink drawing of the blocks were given. No templates, no directions. Women were able to draft their own patterns and figure out the construction on their own just by looking at the pictures.

Goody's Lady's Book, 1840 (Wikimedia Commons)

Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1840 (Wikimedia Commons)

When Laura was learning to quilt in the 1860s and ’70s, patterns weren’t identified by specific names. By the time she sat down to write her stories in the 1930s and on, pattern names were widely used. What she called Doves in the Window in her stories could have been one of several different designs, as several different patterns share that name. When writing Quilting With Laura, the intrigue for me happened when I tried to determine just which Doves in the Window pattern Laura had used for her wedding quilt. There was no real quilt to look at. Very early on in their marriage, a house fire destroyed most of Laura and Almanzo’s belongings, including her wedding quilt.

At the time my book was published, I found what I thought for sure was the correct Doves in the Window pattern. It was one that, like Bear’s Track, had lots of bias edges. It’s the one I could see Caroline making Laura take out over and over again until she had it right. And it looks like doves. Surely that must be the pattern she was talking about.

Doves In The Window

Doves In The Window

Or, could it have been this one, also called Doves in the Window, but that was very similar to Bear’s Track?

Doves in the Window block.

Doves in the Window block.

 

Bear's Paw block.

Bear’s Track block.

That would certainly explain why she called it Bear’s Track in On The Banks of Plum Creek, but Doves in the Window in These Happy Golden Years.

But wait! Could it have been this one –

quilt block by Linda Halpin

– very similar to a block made by Laura on display at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Park and Museum in Burr Oak, IA?

dscf3297

Quilt block on display in the Master Hotel, Laura Ingalls Wilder Park & Museum, Burr Oak, IA.

In making Chloe’s Quilt for Kathleen, I had the opportunity to create a little mystery of my own. For the front of the quilt, I combined Nine Patch, the pattern both Laura and Mary made (and the pattern Mary continued to make even after she lost her eyesight), Bear’s Track, and the Doves in the Window that resembles the Bear’s Track.

I used reproduction fabrics that mimicked the fabrics Laura would have used as a child. I even used the construction technique seen so often in antique scrap quilts of piecing together tiny fragments of cloth until they were large enough to cut out the small pieces needed to make the block.

When I was done, I had created this quilt for Kathleen.

Linda (on the right) and I took the gorgeous 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.

Isn’t it beautiful?  Linda (on the right) and I took Chloe’s Quilt to the Ingalls family’s dugout site on Plum Creek. Just because.

But for my mystery, I couldn’t resist also including the Burr Oak Doves in the Window variation, as I felt it told a story of its own. The back of Kathleen’s quilt shows a variation of the Burr Oak block (lower left in photo below), as well as another Doves in the Window design. The Burr Oak block is very similar to a pattern I discovered in an old quilting book from 1929, where author Ruth Finley collected patterns and stories and recorded them in one of the first books written on quilting. In the Finley book, Doves in the Window appears as the block shown top right below.

Doves in the Window

Is it possible that this was the pattern Laura made? Was she trying to recreate it from memory, thereby making one so similar to the Finley block by making the Burr Oak block? We may never know, but it sure is fun to speculate!

Linda Halpin

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Linda Halpin has been teaching quiltmaking across the United States and Canada for over 40 years. She is one of a handful of teachers certified by the Embroiderer’s Guild of America as a Quiltmaking Instructor. In addition to Quilting with Laura, which focuses on hand piecing, the way Laura would have done, she has also written several other quiltmaking books as well as The Little House Sampler pattern, which is geared toward today’s machine piecing techniques. She was invited both in 2015 and 2016 by Andover Fabrics of New York to make quilts for them using their Little House on the Prairie inspired lines of fabrics, available in quilt shops nationwide. To see more of Linda’s work, or to learn about the classes and lectures she offers, visit her website at www.lindahalpin.com.

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Learn more about Death on the Prairie, and all of the Chloe Ellefson Mysteries, on my website.

Bringing Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Stories to Life in Quilts – Part 1

February 14, 2017

I’m delighted to welcome my talented friend Linda Halpin to the blog! Linda is a quilt instructor and historian—and a Laura Ingalls Wilder fan.

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Linda Halpin with one of her beautiful quilts at the replica Ingalls cabin in Pepin, WI.

Like many, my adventure with Laura started in grade school when I was captivated by her stories. This was long before television brought her to life. She lived in my head, made real by her story telling. As a child, I too began sewing at an early age, so whenever Laura mentioned sewing, it struck a chord. I remember her telling of how Ma expected her to do her job over until it was done well.

That pesky Bear’s Track quilt block she was making in On The Banks of Plum Creek, with so many bias edges that had to be done over and over until it was right.

The Doves in the Window quilt she made as a little girl that she packed into her trunk in These Happy Golden Years as she gathered belongings for her new life as Almanzo’s wife.

And it all started with the Nine Patch blocks she and Mary learned their sewing skills on.  What were these patterns?  What did they look like?

Nine patch quilt (National Museum of American History, 321804.)

Nine patch quilt, c. 1890-1900, maker unknown.  (National Museum of American History, 321804.)

Fast forward many years:  I had become a quilt teacher, leading classes for quilt shops and guilds across the country.  One day, a young mom came into a shop where I was teaching.  She was looking for a book that had patterns that tied in with the Little House stories.  They were her daughter’s favorite books, and she wanted to teach her daughter how to quilt.  What better way than to do it through quilt blocks that told Laura’s story?

Why hadn’t I thought of it before?  It was the perfect project for me to undertake.  I began with re-reading the entire Little House series of books, this time making note of all the times Laura mentioned quilts and fabric and sewing.  Imagine my surprise to find over 70 references!  Stitching truly was a part of her every day life.

As I made note of the patterns Laura mentioned, her adventures also brought to mind several quilt blocks that would be perfect to help tell her story:  Log Cabin, Schoolhouse, Trail of the Covered Wagon.

Log cabin quilt,1850-1875, maker unknown. (National Museum of American History, 234821)

Log cabin quilt,c. 1850-1875, maker unknown. (National Museum of American History, 234821)

By the time I was done, I had gathered 14 patterns that I thought would be perfect as a teaching tool that linked quilting and Little House.  Quilting with Laura:  Patterns Inspired by the “Little House On The Prairie” Series was published in 1991, with revisions and reprinting in 2015.

quilting with Laura

It has been the perfect way to tell Laura’s story in fabrics, picking and choosing the block designs most appealing to the maker.

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Here are some of the quilts Linda has made to show how the individual block patterns in her book can be put together in different ways.

Andover Fabrics has twice invited Linda to make a display quilt using their Little House on the Prairie-inspired line. The 2015 quilt is shown at the top of the page; this one was created in 2016.

Andover Fabrics has twice invited Linda to make a display quilt using their Little House on the Prairie-inspired line. The 2015 quilt is shown at the top of the page; this one was created in 2016.

 

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This one uses 9 of the block patterns available in Linda’s book, Quilting With Laura.

 

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A sampler using some of the blue and red tones that would have been available for Laura’s use.

 

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Linda designed this Wisconsin-themed quilt for Millhouse Quilts in Waunakee, WI.

* * *

Linda Halpin has been teaching quiltmaking across the United States and Canada for over 40 year. She is one of a handful of teachers certified by the Embroiderer’s Guild of America as a Quiltmaking Instructor. In addition to Quilting with Laura, which focuses on hand piecing, the way Laura would have done, she has also written several other quiltmaking books as well as The Little House Sampler pattern, which is geared toward today’s machine piecing techniques. She was invited both in 2015 and 2016 by Andover Fabrics of New York to make quilts for them using their Little House on the Prairie inspired lines of fabrics, available in quilt shops nationwide. To see more of Linda’s work, or to learn about the classes and lectures she offers, visit her website at www.lindahalpin.com

* * *

Next time, Linda will share how she came to create a quilt for my Chloe Ellefson mystery, Death on the Prairie!

Giveaway Winners

February 9, 2017

Congratulations to Jennifer Motl!  Jennifer won a personalized copy of Death on the Prairie:  A Chloe Ellefson Mystery.  (All of the other winners came from my Facebook page, where we had over a thousand entries!)

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Thanks to all who entered!

Gratitude Giveaway!

February 7, 2017

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Laura Ingalls Wilder was born on this date in a log cabin in the ‘big woods’ near Pepin, WI. Laura’s beloved Little House books were some of the earliest I read as a child, and certainly influenced my career.

In gratitude, I’m giving away 15 personalized copies of my Laura-related Chloe Ellefson mystery, Death on the Prairie.

To enter the giveaway, leave a comment below before midnight on Wednesday, 2/8/17. Winners will be chosen from entries here and on my Facebook page, and announced on Thursday.