Archive for the ‘Trouble at Fort La Pointe’ Category

Trouble at Fort La Pointe

March 2, 2013

THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY

Trouble At Fort La Pointe Cover300DPI

I thought about writing a story about the Great Lakes’ fur trade era for a long time.   Lake Superior is beautiful, and the region’s history is fascinating. From 1650 to 1850, the fur trade was the most important “business” in the area that now includes Wisconsin.  That’s longer than Wisconsin has been a state!

I do not have Native American ancestry, so I considered very carefully before deciding to write a story that involved Anishinabe people (or, as the French fur traders were more likely to call them, Ojibwe people).

During this period I was working for public television, helping create and script instructional video programs such as New Dawn of Tradition:  A Wisconsin Powwow.  I learned a lot about Native American history, culture, and tribal sovereignty by studying, visiting tribal educators on many of Wisconsin’s reservations, and attending an American Indian Studies Summer Institute sponsored by the Menominee Culture Institute and the Department of Public Instruction.

I decided to write a story that focused on the meeting of two very different cultural groups, the Anishinabe and the French.  My main character, Suzette, would be a blend of those two cultures.  The story takes on what is today known as Madeline Island, in Lake Superior, in northern Wisconsin.

White traders and Native American people had a lot to learn about each other.  People of mixed heritage, like Suzette, played an important role in helping Ojibwe people and white traders learn about each other.

People of mixed heritage, like Suzette, played an important role in helping Ojibwe people and white traders learn about each other.  (Image courtesy Fort William Historical Park.)

I discussed my story idea with some of the Anishinabe educators I’d met.  And when American Girl invited me to submit an idea for their brand-new line of History Mysteries, I knew just what time, place, and theme to suggest!

Then I got busy.  Next stop:  Madeline Island.  The area where Fort La Pointe stood has changed a great deal over the years, but spending time on the island helped me imagine what the landscape might have been like in the 1730s.

The Madeline Island Museum collection includes several pieces displaying a blend of cultures, such as beaded moccasins and decorative items made from tin. (Image courtesy Madeline Island Museum)

I’ve also been lucky enough to visit a number of other historic sites that help bring the fur trade era to life in my imagination:  Fort William Historical Park in Thunder Bay, Ontario; Grand Portage National Monument, Grand Portage, Minnesota; Colonial Michilimackinac, Mackinaw City, MI; Waswagoning, Lac du Flambeau, WI.  I hope the photographs below help you imagine Suzette’s world, too.

Linda at Waswagoning


At Waswagoning, a recreated village on the Lac du Flambeau Indian Reservation, I learned about traditional Anishinabe life. This guide showed me how Suzette would have started a fire and cooked a meal.

Suzette might have slept in a lodge like this.

Suzette might have slept in a lodge like this.

An interpreter at Grand Portage showed me different items made from birchbark…

...including this cradleboard.

…including this cradleboard.

Furs were dried…

And stretched…

Voyageur Fur Bales

Before being packed into bales, ready for transport.

Voyageurs, like Suzette’s Papa, had to be very strong to lift the heavy bales.  They took the bales to cities faraway markets.

On portages, voyageurs had to carry the bales from one lake or river to the next. (Image courtesy Fort William Historical Park.)

Furs traveled from the Great Lakes to faraway markets, perhaps to be made into a hat like this one.

Furs from the Great Lakes region were made into warm, waterproof garments—such as a hat like this one.  Trade goods included kettles, knives, beads, and blankets.

Everyone looked forward to the day the voyageurs arrived, carrying goods--and a gentleman or two.

Everyone looked forward to the day the voyageurs arrived, carrying goods—and a gentleman or two. (Image courtesy Fort William Historical Park.)

Clerks and officers ran the trading posts and lived indoors.  This hall is at Grand Portage National Monument.

Grand Portage shelter

Meanwhile, the voyageurs lived with their families for the short summer, or in makeshift shelters like this.

Clerks Desk Grand Portage

A clerk, such as Suzette’s friend in Trouble at Fort La Pointe, might have used a desk like this one.

While wealthy post owners might have used something like this.

Wealthy post owners might have used something fancier, like this desk at Grand Portage National Monument.

If you have the chance to visit northern Wisconsin, or anywhere around the Great Lakes, I hope you’ll find time to visit one of these great historic sites.

If you use your imagination at places like Fort Michilimackinac, you’ll soon be hearing the echos of the voyageurs’ songs rippling over the waters.

PS: Since Trouble at Fort La Pointe was published, several people have asked why I chose to write about the fur trade era–don’t I like animals?  I do, very much!  (In fact, I’ve been a vegetarian for 40 years.)  But the fur trade era was an important chapter in our history, and ignoring it would be a disservice to all the children, women, and men involved.  At the heart of this book is a story about a family facing challenges, and the fur trade is merely the backdrop.

Trouble at Fort La Pointe was my first mystery, so I was thrilled when it was nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Children’s Mystery by Mystery Writers of America.  I traveled to New York city for the festivities and the awards banquet.  My book didn’t win, but it was still very exciting to be there!

That’s my husband Scott Meeker on the left, and my AG editor Peg Ross on the right.

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:  http://kathleenernst.com)

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.