Please welcome Kathleen Ernst to Hearth Cricket! Kathleen is a fellow Midnight Ink author who writes the Historic Sites Mystery Series (as well as several American Girl books). Like me, she has a fascination with history and colonial skills. Unlike me, she has actually worked at an outdoor living history museum. The third mystery in her series, The Light Keeper’s Legacy, just released this month in both trade paperback and ebook formats. I’ve already downloaded my Kindle copy and can’t wait to start it. And now:
by Kathleen Ernst
Anonymous was a woman, they say. Anyone who loves history—or who has waded into the murky waters of genealogical research—knows that it can be much more difficult to learn about historical women than men. Men are noted by full name on legal papers and in local histories. The string of male surnames on a family tree are easier to track than the women of different birth names grafted onto the records by marriage.
During the decade I spent working as a curator at a large historic site, I worked hard to keep women’s stories an equal part of the research and interpretation. It’s important that our children understand that all women, not just a prominent few, led interesting lives.
Chloe Ellefson, the protagonist of my Historic Sites mystery series, is also drawn to stories of unrecognized, even unknown women from the past. In the third installment, The Light Keeper’s Legacy, Chloe is charged with researching and writing a furnishings plan for Pottawatomie Lighthouse. This magnificent (and real) structure dates back to 1858, and sits within Wisconsin’s Rock Island State Park in Lake Michigan.
When Chloe arrives, she meets Herb Whitby, a volunteer who had taken a lead role in restoring the lighthouse. It’s immediately apparent that the two are approaching the project quite differently:
“With any luck we’ll find primary source material from some of the women and children who lived here,” Chloe added. “Sometimes the best clues about furnishings turn up in diaries and letters written by the people who had to clean the pieces.”
Herb straightened his shoulders. “I assure you, the light keepers themselves did a great deal of upkeep on a regular basis.” He sounded peeved.
“I know this structure was built in 1858,” Chloe said, as they climbed the stairs to the second story. “There were some fishing families on the island at that time, right? I wonder if we could find some written description of the lighthouse from someone in the fishing village. A letter, maybe.”
“Observations from some barely-literate fisherman would hardly be relevant to this project,” Herb said. He pointed to a narrow room, facing north. “This was the assistant keeper’s bedroom.”
OK, Herb, I get it, Chloe thought. No more references to women, children, or fisherfolk. The Native Americans who fished these waters were presumably off-limit in his mind, too.
Chloe, of course, continues to delve into the lives of the women who’d once lived on Rock Island. She becomes particularly fascinated with Emily Betts, who once served as Assistant Keeper at Pottawatomie Lighthouse, and Ragna Anderson, a Danish immigrant who had lived in the fishing village. She soon discovers that an old tragedy involving the two women might have ramifications in a contemporary murder investigation.
Emily Betts was a real woman who served as Assistant Keeper and was much admired in the community. I have not yet found any written records, photographs, or artifacts from women who lived in the fishing village, so I created the fictional Ragna Anderson to represent them.
I sometimes miss my old curator days. But as an author, I now have the fun of featuring real historic sites and museums in the Chloe Ellefson books. Each mystery reflects and celebrates the contributions of women both real and imagined. And each, I hope, shines a little candlelight on everyday, invisible women who paved the way for their daughters and granddaughters.
I’m grateful to Cricket for allowing me to be a guest on her blog. And I’m grateful to readers! I love my work, and I’d be nowhere without you. Leave a comment here, and your name will go into a drawing; the winner may choose any of my Chloe Ellefson mysteries: Old World Murder, The Heirloom Murders, or The Light Keeper’s Legacy. For more information see my website, http://kathleenernst.com, or my blog, http://sitesandstories.wordpress.com .
The Light Keeper’s Legacy is Kathleen Ernst’s twenty-fourth published book. In addition to the Chloe Ellefson series, she has written many books for American Girl, including the six-book series about the newest historical character, Caroline Abbott. Several of her mysteries for young readers have been finalists for Edgar or Agatha awards. Kathleen and her husband Scott volunteer as live-in docents for a week each summer at Pottawatomie Lighthouse.