Posts Tagged ‘The Runaway Friend’

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  My best find was a huge collection of unpublished reminiscences about the pioneer era.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