History museum part of mystery series

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Edwin Scherzer | May 17, 2016

EAGLE -- Many an avid reader has fond memories of Laura Ingalls Wilder and “Little House on the Prairie.” The story re-creates feelings closely woven into Wisconsin memories -- family, heritage and handmade crafts. Author Kathleen Ernst writes about these situations as she delicately intertwines her historical fiction series featuring Chloe Ellefson.

Ernst was born in Maryland. Her earliest jobs involved work as a naturalist and interpreter in Maryland and other states.

In 1982 Ernst moved to Wisconsin, accepting a job with the Wisconsin Historical Society at Old World Wisconsin near Eagle. She worked on site as an interpreter for two years before moving behind the scenes as curator of interpretation and collections. Following another decade writing children's programming for public television, she committed to becoming a full-time writer.

It was the cultural immersion at Old World Wisconsin where Ernst would create Ellefson.

“I was writing children's mysteries at the time, so just for fun I began playing with the idea of a series featuring a curator at OWW, written for adults and mature teens, thus Chloe was born,” Ernst said. 

As disclaimers go, Ernst is quick to point out her fictional heroine does not represent a real life character: “Chloe is not me, but we have enough in common that it's easy to write her.”

The natural setting of heritage and history at Old World Wisconsin was something Ernst missed when leaving there in the early 1990s. She loved the site and enjoyed chatting with guests about fascinating themes and events from Wisconsin's rich history. 

The book series involves not only a crime in Chloe's time (set in the early 1980s), but also a mystery from the past. As Ernst describes her, Chloe is a reluctant sleuth, happy to leave the police work to her friend/love interest Officer Roelke McKenna.

However, in each book, her knowledge of the past and her research skills are necessary to help solve the mysteries.

Detective work is a skill that curators definitely need, Ernst said.

“All too often curators encounter wonderful artifacts with no known information about the person who once made or owned it,” she said. “Researchers can only uncover so much about the past, no matter how far they look.”

It's these clues that the fictional Ellefson uses to solve mysteries, (all involving murder) and discover the roots of historical artifacts -- which are cleverly worked into the books -- along with real-world sites that Ernst hopes readers will visit.

“Nothing makes me happier than hearing from readers that after reading one of the Chloe mysteries, they traveled to see the place where it was set,” she said.

A seventh book in the Chloe Ellefson series is set to be released in early October.

In addition to children's historical mysteries and the Chloe Ellefson series, Ernst has written 19 books under the American Girl umbrella.

She also has written two nonfiction books, one concerning Maryland civilians during the Civil War, and her latest offering, “A Settler's Year.”

The book, released last year, came about as Ernst was invited to author the work by the Wisconsin Historical Society because a colleague who was set to start work on the book passed away unexpectedly. “A Settler's Year” takes a look at the immigrant experience in Wisconsin.

Ernst also has been drawn into crafts featured in her books -- knitting and quilting to name two -- but also nalbinding (a fabric construction technique that predates crocheting and knitting), rosemaling and wycinanki, a type of Polish paper crafting.

“I enjoyed creating wycinanki -- Polish paper cutting -- while working on 'Tradition of Deceit,' which features the art,” she said. 

In the seventh book in the Ellefson series, Ernst reveals more interaction with Ellefson's love interest and crime-solving partner, Roelke McKenna, a favorite character among readers. “A Memory of Muskets” will provide the first look at his family history -- in this case, the German branch.

Readers will meet McKenna's maternal great-grandmother, Rosina, who arrived in Wisconsin at age 16, just as the  Civil War was starting.

The plot includes a look at the difficult decisions many German immigrants faced: Should they fight to defend the country offering them a new home, or should they keep their heads down and try to stay clear of the conflict?

As for Chloe, she faces trouble from her boss, Ralph Petty, as she tries to help host Old World Wisconsin's first Civil War re-enactment. Most of the book takes place at Old World, although a key scene occurs at German Fest in Milwaukee.

Whether a fan of her books or just a fan of history, Ernst encourages everyone to support their local museums and historical sites.

“We are truly fortunate to have so many wonderful historic sites in Wisconsin and they never have enough resources to do all they would like to do,” she said. “And once a building, artifact or story is lost, it's lost for good.”



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