Archive for the ‘The Runaway Friend’ Category

The Runaway Friend

April 13, 2013




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  My best find was a huge collection of unpublished reminiscences about the pioneer era.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.

What Would You Bring?

June 17, 2012

What did immigrant children bring to American in the 1800s?

Two girls at home in Sweden.

Last week I gave a History Mystery tour at Old World Wisconsin, the historic site featured in my Chloe Ellefson mysteries for adults, and we talked about the difficult choices immigrants made as they packed their trunks for the new world. What to take, what to leave behind?

The conversation made me think of Kirsten, one of the American Girl historical characters.

Kirsten left Sweden with her family in the 1850s, and settled in Minnesota. When I was invited to write a mystery about Kirsten, I wanted to create a plot that would present an interesting mystery, but also touch readers’ hearts. The Runaway Friend is about a boy who disappears just when Kirsten’s family needs his help with the harvest.

It’s also about the challenges faced by women and girls when they found themselves half-way around the world from the life they once knew. At such a time  objects from home became especially precious. Since most of the items packed into immigrant trunks had to be practical, those pieces that didn’t serve an important purpose must have been real treasures.

Immigrant trunks on display at Gammelgården Museum in Minnesota.

Children were probably lucky if they were able to bring a single toy. Most of the children leaving Europe during that period wouldn’t have had a lot of toys, of course, but still…there would have been very little room for anything nonessential.

While I was in Minnesota exploring the area where many Swedish people settled, I found this lovely little Scandinavian bentwood box in an antiques store.  What might have been kept inside?

At the same store I found some clay marbles. The combination made me imagine a girl carefully tucking some small treasures—like a few marbles—inside the box for safekeeping.

Marbles would have been a perfect toy for immigrant children. They were small enough to carry easily. They could be played with alone, or with others. Anyone could scratch a circle in the dust and start a quick game.

I used marbles, a small box, and the idea of making do with few toys when I wrote The Runaway Friend. I hope that the story helps readers imagine life as it might have been for immigrant children one hundred and fifty or so years ago.

Even better, I hope the story inspires readers to imagine themselves back in time, faced with challenges and choices.

If your family lived in Kirsten’s era, and you told you could only take one treasure to your new home, what would you bring?

American Girl and Me

May 17, 2012

I know lots of American Girl fans are eager to learn more about the new Historical Character coming this fall. Since I created the character, I am too! Her name was announced this week:

I had a marvelous time writing six books about Caroline. While I can’t tell you anything more about her yet, I can answer one of the most common questions I hear from readers:  “How did you get started writing for American Girl?”

Actually, I first connected with American Girl long before anyone at the company knew that I was a writer! When the first books and dolls were introduced in 1986, I was working as a curator at Old World Wisconsin, a large outdoor museum. During the day I got all kinds of hands-on experience with historical activities, from gardening to cooking to crafts. I also had the fun of conducting research to support new events and programs at the museum.

That’s me working at one of the Norwegian farms at Old World Wisconsin.

In the evenings, I wrote historical novels. During those early years I was practicing, learning the skills I needed to be a successful writer. And I had big dreams about that!

While American Girl was developing its first Historical Characters, I got a few telephone calls from researchers at the company. They called me because I was a curator, not knowing that I was very interested in writing historical stories. Sometimes the researcher was looking for a particular antique to use as a model for an object in one of the stories. In each case, I would check the antiques in Old World Wisconsin’s collection to see if we had something that might be helpful. If so, I’d take a photograph and send it to American Girl.

Some of old objects are on display at Old World Wisconsin.  Many more are kept in storage.

Once or twice someone from American Girl read me a short paragraph from one of the stories being developed. They wanted to see if the specific details about some process or activity were accurate. I could tell that everyone involved with American Girl cared a lot about getting the details right.

Whenever I got one of those calls, I was happy to help. And each time I hung up the phone I’d think, I’d love to write American Girl stories one day!

After working at Old World Wisconsin for twelve years, I moved on and took a job developing programs for public television. I was still writing in my spare time, and in 1996, my first historical novel was published.

Soon after that, editors at American Girl decided to develop a new line of books called History Mysteries. Someone who worked at the company knew of my interest in historical fiction, and she recommended me. The editor in charge of the History Mysteries called and asked if I’d like to try writing one. That call was a huge surprise.

Of course I said yes!

That was the first time I tried writing a mystery.  It took me a couple of attempts to get the story put together well, but in time American Girl accepted my manuscript.

This was my first book written for American Girl. The main character, Suzette, lives in northern Wisconsin

Later I wrote two more History Mysteries, Whistler in the Dark and Betrayal at Cross Creek.  After Betrayal at Cross Creek was published, the company ended the History Mystery series.

The editors knew how much readers were enjoying the historical mysteries, though. They decided to publish mysteries about the main Historical Characters. My editor invited me to write a mystery about Kit.

It was a real privilege to write a story about such a beloved character! I worked hard to develop a story that fit well with the first six Kit books. I traveled to Cincinnati to learn as much as I could about Kit’s time and setting.

Danger at the Zoo was the first book I wrote about one of American Girl’s Historical Characters.

In time I also wrote a second Kit mystery, as well as mysteries about Josefina, Kirsten, and Molly. (You can find stories and pictures about all these books on my website:

This is my most recent American Girl book. It was fun to write a story about Molly!

I was having a fine time writing these books.  Then, one day, I got another telephone call from American Girl.  Editors were ready to plan a new Historical Character.  Would I be interested in writing the books?

Of course I said yes!

Next month, I’ll share a bit about how that project developed.  Stay tuned….

Leaving Home

February 1, 2012

I’m in Decorah, Iowa this week, doing research at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum. Vesterheim features a spectacular collection of artifacts. I’ve blogged before about their alebowls, and about my experiences taking rosemaling classes.

With so many tangible objects to grab attention, it would be easy to overlook a black-and-white exhibit panel. Yet this one captures my attention each time I visit.

Poignant words.

I began learning about and thinking about the immigrant experience while working at Old World Wisconsin. Later I considered the topic more broadly while scripting Cultural Horizons for public television. Questions of cultural identity have played a role in many of my books (including Trouble at Fort La Pointe, Betrayal at Cross Creek, The Runaway FriendHighland Fling, and Old World Murder).  The theme obviously resonates with me.

Immigrant letters sent back to loved ones in Europe provide some insight into the experience of 18th- and 19th-century arrivals in their new homes. More rare—at least for me—are written records of how people felt as they prepared to say good-by. Paintings of tearful farewells convey well  just how wrenching those departures from loved ones were.

Halvor Langslet’s farewell, though, was about saying good-bye to a place. He evidently felt a need to actually write something down—and not on paper, but on a building. I imagine that felt a bit more permanent.

I watched some kids experience the museum recently—kids who are well wired, able to Skype with distant cousins and use their phones to do almost anything. And that’s OK…but I’m glad that museums like Vesterheim continue to collect and share such rare reminders of what our ancestors experienced.

Immigrant Apples – Revisited

February 11, 2010

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about heirloom apples, and mentioned that Vilhelm Moberg had used Astrachan apples in his classic novels to symbolize a Swedish-American woman’s longing for home.  I was not familiar with that variety.  A friend who grew up in Minnesota (setting for Moberg’s novels) said she’d heard of them, but never tasted one.

Then another blog reader told me that when she was growing up in New England, her family always used Astrachans for applesauce.  Since moving to the Midwest she’s been unable to find them.  “I have yet to find an apple that makes applesauce as sweet and pink as the applesauce from Astrachan apples,” she wrote.

Now I really want to track them down.

As I thought more about this, I remembered an article I’d come across while doing research for The Runaway Friend:  A Kirsten Mystery, which is set in 1854 Minnesota.  In 1972, Carlton C. Qualey published “Diary of a Swedish Immigrant Horticulturist, 1855-1898” in Minnesota History.   Tonight I dug that out of my files, wondering if I’d find mention of the Astrachans.

Andrew Peterson kept a daily diary for forty-three years.  The volumes, written in Swedish, now reside in the Minnesota Historical Society archives.  In the ’72 article, Qualey notes that Moberg acknowledged the use of Peterson’s diary while writing his novels about Swedish immigrants.  “In fact,” Qualey notes, “the character Karl Oskar in the Moberg novels is said to have been modeled after Peterson.”

Who knew?

Peterson began planting apple grafts in 1856, and tried over a hundred varieties.  In 1884, he wrote of planting “Russian apple trees.”  (Yes! I thought.  Historians believe Astrachans originated in Russia, and came to the US with Swedish immigrants.)

In 1885, Peterson wrote that he had received scions of 200 apples he’d requested from Sweden.  Out of sixty varieties only one, he noted,  survived the harsh Minnesota winter.  In 1886, Peterson wrote that “The Russian White Astrakhan is hardier than the Duchess and is a good bearer.”

Very cool.

One more immigrant apple story.   This afternoon, while working on a completely different project (the Swiss settlement at New Glarus, Wisconsin), I found this gem:  “In January, 1853, thirty-one people…went to Monroe on foot to get their citizenship papers.  Each was given an apple, and each Swiss preserved the seeds to plant later, thus the first apple trees were called ‘citizenship apple trees.'”  (The Swiss Endure:  1845-1995, by  Elda Schiesser and Linda Schiesser.)

I don’t know what variety the new American citizens were given.  But I’d like to think that somewhere in the hills around New Glarus is a gnarled old apple tree or two, descended from those first ‘citizenship apple trees.’

PS:  I put this post up at about 3 AM (once I remembered the article about Andrew Peterson, I couldn’t sleep until I’d excavated it).  By the time I got back to the computer this morning, another blog reader had pointed me to Weston’s Antique Apples, in New Berlin, Wisconsin.  (Thanks!)  On their list of varieties is “Red Astrachan (Russia),” which they list as “Rather tart, juicy summer apple good for eating and cooking.”  The Astrachans are harvested in August.

Weston’s is listed on the National Register of Rural Historic Landscapes.  The owners grow over 100 varieties.  The oldest has been documented back to 1598.  One variety, the Old Church apple, is grown only Weston’s.

Come August, I’m headed that way.  In the meantime, check out their website.  We need to support the people working hard to preserve varieties that could so easily disappear.