Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Invisible Women by Kathleen Ernst

Lightkeepers cover reduced

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:


Invisible Women
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.

And later:

“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.

KAE SCM lighthouse

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,, or my blog,

KAE in tower CU 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.


  1. I love this post! Your books sounds wonderful, Kathleen. The fact that they're rooted in history sealed the deal. I struggled to find documentation of any kind for the real-life woman on which my debut novel is based. And it broke my heart. Thankfully, I was able to uncover stories from other women of her era to add authenticity to the story, All Different Kinds of Free.

    I'm off to Goodreads to explore your titles and add a few to my to-read list. Thanks, Cricket, for introducing me to a new author!

    1. Thanks for sharing, Jessica. I think many of us who are interested in domestic history share the same frustrations and, as you said, heartbreak. But we can try to illuminate these women's lives in our stories.

  2. What a great post, Kathleen! This is one of the things that I love about historical fiction. Authors find the little forgotten corners of history and fill in the story behind. I end up learning about people and events that I otherwise wouldn't have stumbled across. I love doing the same in my own writing, making those invisible women visible. Not only, as you said, the prominent women, but the women behind the scenes drawing upon strengths of their own. There is so much women's history--most quiet, some not-so-quiet--that I feel I'll never run out of ideas.

    1. Jessica, I love your phrase--little forgotten corners. I'm looking forward to reading about the invisible women you've given voice to.

  3. Thanks for introducing me to Kathleen and her novels, Cricket.

    And Kathleen, I hope Chloe manages to smack Herb up the side of his head before the book ends, figuratively speaking, of course.

  4. Lol Pat! Kathleen, thanks for stopping by and sharing. Really looking forward to reading your latest!

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  6. And the book winner is Patricia! I'll connect privately to learn your choice. Cricket, thanks again for having me!

  7. Kathleen Ernst, you are such a great author!
    I love all of your books! I especially like that this book has lighthouses, thanks Kathleen so much for your great stories!