Tuesday, August 28, 2012

What I'm Reading Now: The Heirloom Murders


Kathleen Ernst is a Wisconsin author who may be best known for her American Girl books. She had written eight American girl mysteries featuring young heroines who are strong as well as smart. And in September American Girl will be launching its newest character, Caroline Abbot, created by none other than Kathleen Ernst.

However, several years ago Kathleen moved her mystery-writing skills to include adult novels.  She drew not only on her abilities as a writer, but on her own experience as an interpreter and curator of the nation's largest outdoor historical museum, Old World Wisconsin.  

The result of that experience is the character Chloe Ellefson, the fictional collections curator of Old World Wisconsin who finds dead bodies and solves their murders.

The Heirloom Murders is the second in the Chloe Ellefson series. The plot revolves around the missing Eagle diamond, a true-life gem unearthed in Wisconsin in 1876. That's my favorite part about reading a book like this one.

As I've said in other posts, I love books that teach me something new. The great thing about Kathleen's book is how she teaches about the workings of an outdoor historical museum without being obvious about it. Everything we learn about the gardens, how important heirloom seeds are (the fact that they exist at all!), and the various people who work on-site is woven naturally into the story. 

The Heirloom Murders switches its point of view between the main character, Chloe, and the young small town police officer, Roelke McKenna, who desperately wants a relationship with her, but doesn't seem to quite know how to go about getting her to commit.

Both Chloe and McKenna have complex personal histories that get in the way of a relationship, but also equip them with the skills and character traits that make them good leads in the kinds of murder investigations endemic to the "cozy" mystery genre. The plot is wonderfully tangled and kept me guessing as to who had done what and how the "suspects" were connected. 

The fact that I have visited Old World Wisconsin made the story more personal for me. But for those who haven't been there, Kathleen paints a picture of the site and the small towns nearby that puts the reader into the story.  

The Heirloom Mystery is a wonderful read for both mystery and history fans.  

Kathleen Ernst is also the author of Old World Murder and the Light Keepers Legacy

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Class of 2016 Mindset List


Did you know that today's college freshmen think blue M&M's have always co-existed with red and brown ones?

In their world Martin Lawrence has always been banned from Saturday Night Live.

Gene therapy has always been an available medical treatment.

And history has always had its own channel.

These are just a few of the cultural references that Professor Tom McBride and  Emeritus Director of Public Affairs Ron Nief, both at Beloit College in Wisconsin, have included in their Mindset List for the Class of 2016.

The popular and widely reported list contains 75 references intended as a humorous way to clue college professors into the "intelligent if unprepared adolescent consciousness" of their newest students. McBride and Nief have been producing their Mindset lists since 1998--when this group of incoming freshman were just four years old.

According to the list, one of the "cultural touchstones that shape the lives of students entering college this fall" includes this rather disturbing gem: A significant percentage of them will enter college already displaying some hearing loss. Wonder what causes that? Could it be earbuds?

They have also never seen an airplane "ticket," and they can't image people carrying their luggage through airports--everyone knows you roll your luggage!  And this is not news to their parents: They watch television everywhere but on a television.

According to McBride in the promo material for their book, The Mindset Lists of AmericanHistory, one of the reasons they began the list was "to remind faculty members and the general public that entering college students have a particular and limited range of experiences.”

But I think it goes the other way as well. For instance, in the experience of today's college freshmen, genomes of living things have always been sequenced. What does it mean when the inquiring minds of tomorrow's scientists begin from the assumption that they can access the genome of any living organism they wish to study? And in their world, women have always piloted space shuttles and fighter jets. Not a bad thing, I think.

What's even more intriguing than the list itself is the interpretation of the author's finding offered in a "Guide" for college teachers and counselors. The authors seem to find today's entering college students to be tribal, addicted to technology, and nervous when not in touch with their cohorts via that technology. McBride and Nief question whether these young adults are spoiled by their parents or conned by them, having been "sent off to college to pursue the American Dream, only to find out that their career path will be rocky and their debt load burdensome."

But they do hold out hope as they report that "members of the Class of 2016 are subtly learning some good economic habits. The male members of the class are, not uncommonly, pretty good cooks of inexpensive organic food."

You can find the entire Mindset List  and the Guide in pdf format on the Beloit College website. 

So…it is true, my dear niece Samantha, that you and your new roomies have never eaten a tan M&M?  

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Madeline Island and the Apostle Islands

My husband took me away for a (too) short vacation to Madeline Island this past weekend.  Madeline Island is one of the Apostle Islands up on Lake Superior, just north of Bayfield, Wisconsin.  I have no idea why they are named the Apostle Islands, as there are 22 of them, but what's cool is that--except for Madeline--the islands are all part of the National Park Service's protected Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

View from our balcony on Madeline Island
[Photo: Peggy Williams]
Who knew there is such an idyllic vacation spot right in my own state?  A lot of people, apparently.  Turns out Madeline Island is quite popular and you have to plan ahead to get affordable accommodations--at times any accommodations.  We managed a two night stay at the Inn on Madeline Island, which offers a variety of housing options. We paid way more than we should have for a condo unit on the lake that could have accommodated my entire extended family if we'd been inclined to invite them. But this was our private weekend getaway.

Madeline is small, as vacation islands go.  It's just fourteen miles long, and from two to four miles wide.  So we were able to drive around the entire island during an afternoon's outing. However, very little of the drive included lake views; the roadway is mostly wooded, and a significant portion of the drive was on gravel.  Our question of whether there is much wildlife on the island was answered when a deer ambled out and crossed right at the exact spot where there was a deer crossing sign. Guess the wildlife there is pretty intelligent.  We also spotted a bald eagle, sandhill cranes, and a little weasel who had made his home, for better or worse, on the ferry dock. 
  
The highlight of our drive was Big Bay Beach at Town Park.  The beach is located on a spit of land--the thinnest of peninsulas jutting out from land on which Big Bay State Park is located.  That narrow peninsula creates a natural lagoon between it and the main island that is fed by the waters of Lake Superior.  The lagoon is lovely and quiet, a perfect place for kayakers. To cross the lagoon to the beach, you have to traverse a series of wooden foot bridges. The sandy beach, while narrow, is quite long and lovely for walking. We were there on a Sunday afternoon in August and there were surprisingly few people scattered along its edge.

The Town of La Pointe on Madeline Island is small, only about 230 people in the off season.  But it hosts a wonderful historical museum, a golf course, bike, moped, and kayak rentals, shops, and some good restaurants.  We especially enjoyed the Pub restaurant, associated with the Inn on Madeline Island, for dinner and late night pizza, and Grandpa Tony's for cheeseburgers for lunch.  The specialty in the area, of course, is whitefish.    

An old Ojibwe Indian cemetery across from the harbor gives an intriguing glimpse into the effects of Father (later Bishop) Baraga who created missions along much of the Lake Superior area.

What I thought was especially cool is that there is a Yoga retreat on the island, and besides all the local artists endemic to any peninsula/island life, the public is invited to participate in the Madeline Island School of the Arts, which offers weeklong seminars in writing, photography, painting and quilting.

The highlight of our weekend was the three hour sunset cruise around the Apostle Islands.  It's amazing to see so many islands of different sizes gathered all in one location and to think about the geologic forces that formed and shaped them and to hear the stories of the human forces that interacted with them for better or worse.  Devil's island is probably the most intriguing because of its many sea caves. Kayakers were exploring the watery caves as we motored by. 

Bayfield, the community on the mainland that hosts the ferry dock, is a fun little community in its own right, and easily twice the size, if not more, than La Pointe. There are quite a few more choices in Bayfield for dining, but our favorite restaurant there was Greunke's First Street Inn. The walls are filled with pictures of people who've eaten there (including John Kennedy, Jr.) and other memorabilia. And the food was fantastic, especially the in-season blueberry pie! 

Bayfield, Wisconsin [Photo: Peggy Williams]
There are no less than three bookstores in this little town.  For a little shop, Apostle Island Booksellers had an amazing choice of local and regional fiction and non-fiction, along with the usual popular and best sellers (I even saw Fifty Shades of Grey on their front table!).  And of course there are plenty of pottery and art galleries and studios. 

Bayfield is where you catch the lake cruises, both the bigger boats and the privately skippered sailboats, as well as much of the kayaking rentals.  For those who like musical performances, the Big Top Chautauqua is very popular.

Me…I'm happy to sit on the balcony or out on the pier looking out over the water and daydreaming, or just strolling the beaches.

Sunset from ferry dock in Bayfield, WI
[Photo: Peggy Williams]
I did find out that the little ferry that runs every half hour between Bayfield and Madeline Island can haul RV's.  So…guess where book number three of the On the Road mystery series will take place…! 

Happy travels!