Posts Tagged ‘Civil War reenacting’

Researching A Memory of Muskets

July 23, 2018

Image of the cover of the seventh Chloe Ellefson mystery, A Memory of Muskets, by bestselling author Kathleen Ernst, published by Midnight Ink.Mr. Ernst here. This book’s modern storyline is set in July 1983. Some readers find it hard to imagine life back then. For others, that time can evoke cherished  memories and “Oh, I remember that!” moments.

This mystery revolves around memories of our Civil War, including murders tied to a reenactment at Old World Wisconsin, the historic site where Chloe works, and a tragic love story about German immigrants who settle in Wisconsin at the war’s beginning in 1861.

Few people have detailed knowledge of the experiences of those who were caught up in the war, or those who were reenacting it in the 1980s.

OWWKathleenDoorway200x281wTo bring those time periods alive for Chloe readers, Kathleen relied on her memories of the twelve years she spent working at Old World, first as a costumed interpreter and then as its Curator of Interpretation and Collections.

Her time in the latter role included being the outdoor ethnic museum’s host responsible for organizing the Civil War events held there.

Kathleen also drew upon her years spent as a civilian Civil War reenactor, during which she observed and took part in numerous reenactments and living history events.

The influence of these experiences on what Kathleen has written about Chloe, Roelke, Rosina, and Klaus are explored in her recent blog post, A Memory of Muskets—A Retrospective. Additional insights are available on the Memory Of Muskets page on her website.

Kathleen also drew upon my memories of portraying a Union soldier. At the heart of them is a love story about Kathleen and me.

How my GGGF Introduced Me to His War and My Bride-to-Be

My entry into “The Hobby” came about as a result of doing genealogical research on the military service of my maternal great-great grandfather.

1862 tintype image of 1st Sergeant James Francis Cantwell, Company G, 80th Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment, Union Army.In 1862 James Francis Cantwell answered President Abraham Lincoln’s call for 100,000 additional volunteers to serve three years in the Union Army.

During the war he marched some 3,750 miles through Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia before arriving in North Carolina by railroad train (“the cars”) and sailing ship.

He fought in 26 engagements, including: the bloody battle of Perryville, KY; the defense of Knoxville, TN; the vicious fighting at Resaca and Kenesaw Mountain, GA; the capture of Atlanta, a narrow escape at Spring Hill, the slaughter at Franklin, and the destruction of General Hood’s army at Nashville.

At war’s end he returned to his family, unlike 620,000 other soldiers.

Researching his military records motivated me to learn even more. Taking his photo to a Civil War event, I showed it to a group of reenactors who looked and drilled like they knew what they were doing.

33rd Wisconsin reenactors. Photo courtesy of John Wedeward.

The 33rd Wisconsin. Photographer unknown.

As Kathleen wrote in A Memory of Muskets:

The two dozen or so reenactors who’d been lounging about jumped to their feet and scrambled to form two lines behind the stacked muskets.

Three stacks of Civil War muskets at Old World Wisconsin. Photo courtesy of John Wedeward.

Stacked muskets at Old World. Photo courtesy of John Wedeward.

“Right dress!”

The soldiers on the right end of the lines stood still. Everyone else jostled a bit as they came to stand shoulder to shoulder. Siggelkow, the tallest man, was on the left. Roelke also spotted Kyle Fassbender, the young interpreter.

“Front!”

The men moved smartly through each command—taking arms, removing bayonets, shouldering arms. These are the moves my ancestor learned, Roelke thought.

The reenactors were able to tell me a great deal about my ancestor from the photo. Then they made me an offer:  loan of a uniform and musket, and instruction in the soldierly arts my GGGF had been taught when he first entered the Union Army Infantry.

Accepting the offer, I joined the 33rd Wisconsin, which Kathleen used as a model for the 9th Wisconsin in the book, and spent the next decade learning about and reenacting the Civil War.

It would shortly prove to be one of my best decisions ever.

“I don’t get the whole reenacting thing.” Dobry used a bit of pancake to mop up a dribble of syrup. “A bunch of grown men running around with guns. If they ever dealt with the aftermath of real violence they wouldn’t think it was so much fun.”

While the 33rd’s members did run around with guns, they were at heart military historians. They were dedicated to being as authentic as possible for two reasons:  to increase their knowledge of the experiences of the Union soldiers they portrayed, and to respectfully honor those men who fought to preserve the United States of America.

The first public event I took part in was at Old World, a fantastic place to reenact. (Later I learned Kathleen had organized the event.)

Nestled into its 576 acres of gentle hills, forests, kettle ponds and prairies are over sixty historic buildings, carefully relocated from around the state and lovingly restored. In addition to a crossroads village, there are three working farms dating from the Civil War era, including the German Schultz Family Farm featured in the book.

1860s German Schultz Family Farm at Old World Wisconsin. Photo by the author.

Schultz Family Farm. Photo by Kathleen Ernst.

Although familiar with the view, Chloe felt the spell. The land to their left was forested. Wheat rippled on their right. Beyond the field sat a tidy half-timbered home, and a stable and huge grain barn with thatched roofs. Laundry hung on a line. Oxen browsed in the pasture. It was a bubble moment—when everything looked and sounded and smelled and felt so real that for an instant, just an instant, it felt as if time had truly slipped.

Gunter stood transfixed. “We’d be honored to participate in programming here. This site is first-rate.”

That weekend we did military “living history.” Which is to say we portrayed to the public portions of the common soldier’s day-to-day military experiences—without a battle.

On Saturday we put on a recruitment rally, followed by a reenactment of Wisconsin’s 1863 draft. (Later I learned Kathleen coordinated it.)

(Note from Kathleen: I have very fond memories of those events! We had great reenactors in the 3rd and 33rd Wisconsin Regiments who enjoyed doing top-notch programming.)

Reenactor in top hat and tails ready to enlist men in the Union Army. Photo courtesy of John Wedeward.

Ready to enlist draftees. Photo courtesy of John Wedeward.

…the Village buildings all closed temporarily so visitors and interpreters could attend the reenactment of the 1863 draft. Kyle Fassbender made an impassioned speech opposing the vile act. A member of the 9th, dressed in an impressive coat and top hat, had the honor of pretending to spin the draft drum and reading names. The draftees reacted with groans, complaints, or flight. The visitors loved it.

Later we practiced the manual of arms, conducted loading and firing demonstrations, did bayonet drill, and marched in the intricate, shoulder-to-shoulder infantry formations (invented by Napoleon).

Company formation of Union Infantry reenactors marching in column at Old World Wisconsin in the 1980s. Photo courtesy of John Wedeward.

Marching at Old World. Photo courtesy of John Wedeward.

We also spent time portraying typical camp life, including cooking meals, cleaning weapons, holding mail call, and undergoing inspection.

A long double rank of Union Army Infantry at Old World Wisconsin. Photo by Kathleen Ernst.

Reenactor company at Old World. Photo by Kathleen Ernst.

It was at Old World that I first experienced the camaraderie of living outdoors with a group of male comrades. Spending weekends in the wool uniforms and leather accoutrements of a Union infantryman. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder as we drilled.

And that weekend I happened to pass an attractive young woman. Since we were both wearing reproduction 1860’s clothing, I doffed my hat in respect and smiled. She smiled back. When I described her to my comrades, they said “Oh, that’s Kathleen! Everybody knows Kathleen.”

I was intrigued.

(Note from Kathleen:  Me too.)

As my knowledge and experience grew over time, I began interpreting to the public. Helping them understand what they were observing, and answering their questions, became one of my favorite tasks.

Some of the public had relatives who served in the Civil War and wanted to learn more about what their ancestor experienced. Some folks were military vets who would talk about the similarities and differences between their service and what they were seeing.

Diederich took over again. “We will load in nine times,” he told the crowd.

“Load in nine times” proved to mean that nine different steps were needed to load a single round. Roelke tried to imagine doing that while being shot at.

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Loading muskets at Old World. Photo courtesy of John Wedeward.

I still remember my first time taking part in a company firing demonstration. I was in the front rank, and even though I knew we were firing blanks…  I’ll let Roelke describe it.

“Company, fire by rank! Rear rank, ready…”

Each man in the back row positioned the barrel of his gun over the shoulder of the man in front of him. That’s gotta be sobering, Roelke thought, as muskets were cocked with an audible “click.”

“Aim . . . Fire!”

When a formation fires, the noise is deafening for those in the ranks. Everything in front of you disappears in a white fog, and the air you inhale smells like rotten eggs.

The explosions were precise. White smoke jetted from the muzzles. Babies cried. Excited kids bounced on their toes. Adults murmured in awe. The weapons boomed louder than modern guns. Roelke smelled black powder—pungent and faintly familiar.

Color photo of Civil War Union Infantry reenactors conducting a musket firing drill at Old World Wisconsin in the 1980s courtesy of John Wedeward.

Musket volley at Old World. Photo courtesy of John Wedeward.

A common question from the public was “Aren’t you hot in those wool uniforms?” Answer:  “Yes, but wool has the natural property of wicking your sweat away, resulting in evaporative cooling—as long as you keep well hydrated.” The most uncommon question? A little child solemnly pointing to our campfire and asking: “Is that a real fire?”

My time as a “Boy in Blue” also included long-distance drives to visit Civil War battlefields, and take part in huge public battle reenactments.

33rd Wisconsin Infantry reenactors at a reenactment of the Battle of Shiloh, Tennessee. Photographer unknown.

Shiloh, Muddy Shiloh. Photographer unknown.

Over the course of a weekend we’d portray parts of an original battle. Sometimes there were 10,000 or more Confederate and Union infantry, cavalry, artillery, and medical reenactors ‘on the field’. At one event an estimated 200,000 musket blanks were fired. The smoke and dust grew thick, the constant noise deafening, and the humid heat oppressive.

Three photos of a reenactment of the Civil War Battle of Chickamauga, Georgia.

Photos by Svend Olsen (top left) and John Atkinson.

Kathleen drew from my memories for this passage in the book.

“Reenacting seems like an interesting hobby,” Roelke said, in a congenial Tell me more tone most unlike him.

“Oh, my gosh, it’s awesome! Big events, small events—I like it all. Our unit decided not to officially do any national events this year, but Steven and I went to Gettysburg for the big 120th anniversary. There were units from all over the country, even some from Europe.” Kyle’s face filled with remembered awe. “When we did the battle I saw this enormous line of Rebels coming at us . . . and then another line appeared over the hill . . . and then another . . . It was a bubble moment for sure. Just awesome.”

Kathleen’s own memories served as the basis for Chloe’s thoughts.

His description reminded Chloe of big events she’d attended. It had been staggering to think that the thousands of reenactors taking the field were only a small percentage of the actual number of men who’d once fought and bled and died there. Critics accused reenactors of playing, of romanticizing a ghastly and bloody conflict, but a thoughtful reenactment could help onlookers move past abstract dates and figures. Roelke simply couldn’t understand how it felt to be in the moment at a well-done event.

Scott Meeker at a reenactment of the 1863 Battle of Chickamauga Georgia. Photographer unknown.

Photographer unknown.

As you might imagine, my memories of those ‘fights’ are incredibly vivid and exciting.

And yet my fondest recollections come from after the public departed the battle reenactment or living history event.

We’d sit around a campfire, under the stars, smoking stoogies (cheap cigars), sipping whiskey from fire-blackened tin cups, singing old Civil War songs, and talking late into the night about the war.

Often we slept on the ground, ‘campaign’ style, rolled up in reproduction gum blankets. Other times we camped under canvas shelter halves (first introduced during the war and nicknamed “pup tents” by the soldiers because they looked like small dog houses).

I greatly valued that such weekends caused the constant buzz of contemporary civilization to fade from my mind. Reenacting reduced life to the basics:  hot/cold, wet/dry, hungry/thirsty. I always returned home physically exhausted, but mentally refreshed.

Yet eventually it grew increasingly difficult to manage the physical challenges involved. And truth be told, my graying beard made me look way too old to pass for any of the men who actually fought the war.

As for Kathleen and I, we were married in St. Peter’s Church at Old World, surrounded by family, her co-workers, and our reenactor friends.

Reproduction tintype of Kathleen and Scott's 1865 wedding. Photographer unknown.

Reproduction tintype. Photographer unknown.

Thanks Sergeant Cantwell for bringing us together. I owe you big time.

But Wait, There’s More

Hopefully this post has piqued your interest in discovering more about the ‘people, places and the past’ in A Memory of Muskets.

There’s a whole page full of information about this book on Kathleen’s website, including the first chapter, the author’s introduction to the story, a discussion guide for book clubs, a pair of custom Google map showing story locations and photos, recipes for foods mentioned in the story, a slide show of objects featured in the book, public radio interviews with Kathleen and a reading of the first chapter, blog posts that offer additional background about aspects of the story, and links to booksellers that offer it in ebook, and printed formats. Explore them by clicking HERE.

Next month I’ll post an article about researching Mining For Justice, the eighth book in the Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mystery series.

A Memory of Muskets – A Retrospective

July 12, 2018

Although setting books at different historic sites and museums is one of my favorite things about writing the Chloe Ellefson series, I do enjoy getting her home to Old World Wisconsin every now and again. The 7th mystery, A Memory of Muskets, does just that.  Like me, Chloe thinks it’s special:

I should come out on site every single day, Chloe thought wistfully. It was a magical place, one of the few living history museums in the country where it was possible to wander all day and still not see everything. She loved inhaling wood smoke, and the acrid tang of coal from the smith’s forge, and the faint floury scent of native grass seed heads baking in the sun. She loved looking out the window of a period kitchen to see garden and field, and prairie or woods beyond. She loved watching the seasons change—loved feeling them change, much as Wisconsin’s early European and Yankee settlers had. Her responsibilities kept her indoors and behind the scenes all too often.

The Schulz Farm at Old World Wisconsin, featured in A Memory of Muskets.

I decided to focus on the experience of Wisconsin’s German immigrants during the American Civil War. I’d already established that cop Roelke McKenna was partially of German descent, and this allowed me to create a plot thread that had personal impact for him—and for Chloe as well.

And how could I fail to include Milwaukee’s beloved German Fest?

Another day at work.

Civil War reenacting provided the perfect activity to link the historical topic to outdoor museum work. I had been active in the hobby myself, sometimes driving many hours to participate in events.  I’d also coordinated an annual reenactment at Old World Wisconsin when I was a curator there. And I met Mr. Ernst when he attended his first reenactment at Old World, so I’ll always have good memories of my reenacting days.

When I’m starting to make notes for a mystery, I look for any source of controversy that can be used in the plot. Reenacting can be a surprisingly contentious hobby. Individual units have different standards of authenticity, and different goals. (Ironically, some reenactors who look fantastic don’t always act that way.) The worst thing a reenactor can be called is “farb,” a term that implies an absolute disregard for authenticity.

Since the book is set largely at Old World Wisconsin, I had to involve Chloe’s boss Ralph Petty, a “misogynistic megalomaniac with a graduate degree in micromanagement.”  Ralph invites a unit with wretched standards to participate in an event at the site, and writing the over-the-top scene where that group does a battle reenactment was great fun.

The death of an unidentified reenactor also provided a nice opportunity for Chloe to get involved in the investigation. The detective is impressed with her analysis of the victim’s belongings:

“You’ve told us plenty,” Goresko assured her. “Anyone would think you’re an experienced profiler.”

“It’s what I do every day, actually. Artifacts are clues to the people who left them behind. Sometimes I have only the tiniest scrap of information, and have to dig deeper to get a sense of the person who made or used the item, and how they felt about it. Analyzing a reenactor’s belongings isn’t much different.”

SPOILER ALERT:  Plot points discussed below!

The books I most enjoy reading have plots that present personal challenges to the main characters, and I try to do the same in my own stories. Chloe’s inability to enter the old cabin on the Roelke farm causes stress:

Squaring her shoulders, she approached the cabin. She opened the door, stepped inside…and instantly felt what she’d felt before. Something dark vibrated in this musty space. The air felt heavy with unhappiness. Chloe felt an uneasy tremor in her chest. …This was a sweet cabin, and she was going to have to tell Roelke that one of his ancestors left a whole lot of bad juju inside.

The Gotten cabin, in the Kettle Moraine State Forest near Eagle, served as inspiration for the old Roelke cabin.

Unable to hide her feelings, Chloe takes a leap of faith and tells him. Roelke’s reaction was intended to suggest that he has some old family issues weighing on him—bad memories from his childhood. Chloe is tapping into something much older, a moral dilemma that shaped the lives of Rosina, Leopold, and Klaus in the historical plotline.

We so often read about immigrants enduring absolutely horrible voyages from Europe to the US. While researching this book I found a wonderful account from a German man who wrote of delightful evenings spent on deck. That inspired Rosina’s experience, with the voyage providing a happy respite between challenges in old world and new. One reader wondered if she and Leopold could have found a private moment on board ship. I’m pretty confident that they could.

When Rosina finds herself pregnant, she has no easy options. Did she make an unfair choice when she married Klaus, or did she do the best she could in a difficult situation? I thought I might hear from readers unhappy to discover that Roelke descended from Leopold, but no one mentioned it.

And speaking of moral dilemmas…Roelke meets Ralph Petty for the first time in A Memory of Muskets. In the end, he threatens to reveal Petty’s family secret if he doesn’t stop harassing  Chloe. Did you cheer Roelke on, or did you think he went too far?

I hope you enjoyed this glimpse of the complexities of hosting a Civil War reenactment at a living history museum.

Reenactors on the green at Old World Wisconsin, probably late 1980s. (Before the 2010 tornado took down the trees.)

You can explore relevant people, places, and the past on mwebpage for A Memory of Muskets. Resources include a Google map, images of key artifacts, a Discussion Guide, audio files, and links to lots of additional background material.

Why A Memory Of Muskets?

September 11, 2016

Readers often ask why I chose a particular historic site and theme to feature in a new Chloe Ellefson mystery. It has become tradition to share what I found special in each new book. Here are some of the elements found in the 7th mystery, A Memory of Muskets.

memory-of-muskets

After four adventures away from home Chloe is back at her own site, Old World Wisconsin. I chose in particular to feature the Schulz Farm, which has been restored to its 1860 appearance. This is a fabulous collection of historic buildings, one of my favorite exhibits at Old World. The architecture reflects building styles in Pomerania.

Schulz Farm, Old World Wisconsin

The German Schulz Farm, 2016. If you look closely you’ll see gardeners repairing the woven garden fence, right by the house.

It was also one of the first buildings I ever worked, way back when. Flax processing is one of the major activities at the Schulz Farm. I was so excited to finally learn to weave!

Kathleen Ernst, Schulz Farm, Old World Wisconsin

That’s me weaving linen, 1982.

After delving into Chloe’s background in earlier books, it also felt like a good time to learn about her friend Roelke McKenna’s heritage. The book includes a plotline that shares the story of the first of Roelke’s German ancestors to immigrate to Wisconsin—just as the American Civil War begins.

Bishop & Son, Watertown, WI - KAE

Bishop & Son, Watertown, WI.  (Author’s collection)

Wisconsin has a strong German-American population, and I was pleased with the opportunity to share a bit about that cultural group. A key scene takes place at German Fest, Milwaukee’s huge annual celebration of all things German.

Welcome to German Fest

The book is set in 1983, the year  German-Americans celebrated the tricentennial of German immigration to America.

Version 2

The premise of A Memory of Muskets involves preparations for Old World’s first Civil War reenactment. This was fun because I once was responsible for coordinating Civil War events at the site. Activities often involved the German Schulz Farm. The 3rd Wisconsin Regiment and other top-notch groups presented thematic programs that reflected different aspects of the war on the Wisconsin homefront.

Civil War event, Old World Wisconsin

Reenactors marching through Old World Wisconsin’s Crossroads Village, sometime in the 1990s.

I was a reenactor myself for over a decade. It was a wonderful hobby. I learned a lot, had some amazing experiences, and made some special friends.

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Interpreting refugee life in  Tennessee with Sue (L) and Yulanda (R), 1995.

I also met my husband, “Mr. Ernst,” through reenacting. So yes, I have lots of special memories!

wedding

We were wearing 1860s attire when we met in the Sanford House driveway at Old World. Two years later we revisited the spot before our period wedding at the site’s restored church. (I’m afraid I don’t recall the name of the tintype artist who took this image.)

In the coming weeks and months I’ll share more detailed behind-the-scenes photos and stories. In the meantime, I hope this serves to pique your interest in Chloe’s latest adventure! Happy reading.

Hearts of Stone

March 10, 2013

THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY

Hearts of Stone by Kathleen Ernst

I’m often asked where my interest in the American Civil War comes from. Growing up in Maryland, I had lots of opportunities to visit Civil War battlefields.  Since Maryland was a border state, I also had plenty of opportunities to consider the experiences of people on both sides of the conflict. And in addition to learning about the soldiers’ lives, I always tried to imagine what it was like for civilians who found themselves in the midst of fighting.

After moving to Wisconsin, I got a job at a large living history site called Old World Wisconsin. For the first two years that I worked there I spent every day in period clothing, going about daily chores from spring through fall.

Author Kathleen Ernst, Old World Wisconsin, 1982

I got a lot of hands-on practice with cooking, craftwork, gardening, livestock, etc., etc. Later, I did a lot of the research that helped develop new programming at the historic site. Some of the details in my books come from those experiences.

Three of the farms at Old World Wisconsin  have been restored to the 1860s.  Working at those helped me gain insight into women’s work during the Civil War years.

I'm spinning flax at the 1860 Schulz House in the German area, back in 1983.

I’m spinning flax at the 1860 Schulz House in the German area, back in 1983.

During that time I also got involved in Civil War reenacting. Most visitors come to Civil War reenactments thinking only about soldiers and battles.

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These men honor soldiers who fought in the Civil War by portraying them at special events and reenactments.

Civilian reenactors in the units I belonged to tried to add an additional layer by portraying the experiences of women, children, and non-military men at events around the country.

I usually portrayed rural working-class women.

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This is my husband and me in a makeshift campsite for refugees at a Civil War event at the Wade House Historic Site.  This photo dates to the 1990s.

Civilian refugee camp reenactment.

Camping  with my friends Sue and Yulanda, sometime in the 1990s, at another event portraying people displaced by the war.

Here I portrayed a rural woman at Pickets Mill Battlefield Historic Site, Georgia.  (Don't worry, the pipe was just for show.)

Here I am at Pickets Mill Battlefield Historic Site, Georgia. (Don’t worry, the pipe was just for show.)

In October, 1994, I participated in a refugee camp scenario planned as part of a huge reenactment held in Spring Hill, Tennessee.  The day we set up camp was marked by torrential rain, and soon the entire area was a sea of mud.  I slept in a small tent that evening, but I remember well the women who managed to spend the night under makeshift shelters formed from quilts and gum blankets—just as families left homeless during the Civil War had to do.

We portrayed refugees at an army-run camp.

Fortunately it didn’t rain all weekend!

The event organizers had worked hard to prepare a full weekend for the participants.  We were busy with food preparation and cleanup, inspections from the provost guard, and interacting with other reenactors and event visitors.

Meghan and Stephanie, two of my fellow refugees.

Before that event was over, I knew I wanted to write a novel about children who end up as refugees during the Civil War.  Hearts of Stone began taking shape in my mind.

My main character, Hannah, is a young teen forced to leave home her three younger siblings when the war tears her community apart.  With both parents dead, she tries desperately to keep her little family together.  She takes the young ones to Nashville, believing that city provided their best hope, but her heart aches to be back home on Cumberland Mountain in Tennessee’s eastern mountains.

The children participating in the scenario at Spring Hill were adorable, and what an experience for them!  But watching them made me feel sad as I thought about all the real children who became homeless during the Civil War.

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These girls helped me imagine Hannah’s little sisters, Mary and Maude.

When the event was over, I needed to do a lot more research.  So, I went back to Tennessee.  I visited libraries.  I read letters and diaries and old newspapers.  I went hiking in the mountains, and I drove the route Hannah and the children took to Nashville (at least as closely as I could, considering how much has changed since the 1860s.)

I looked at photographs and artwork, too.

Civil War refugees

This photo of real Civil War refugees is from the National Archives.

This newspaper illustration portrays a refugee camp.

This period newspaper illustration shows refugees camping in the woods.

It took me about ten years to research, write, revise (many times!) and find a publisher for Hearts of Stone.  I believed in the story, and was delighted when Dutton published the book.  I hope it touches your heart.

PS:  Once published, this book had a wonderful reception!  Among other honors, Hearts of Stone was named an Editors’ Choice Selection of the Historical Novels Review.

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The Society of Midland Authors’ Children’s Literature Award winner!