Kathleen Ernst

KathleenErnstMysterySceneEssayPhoto72dpiLaura and Me


In my current work-in-progress, the sixth installment of my Chloe Ellefson series, my protagonist has cause to consider her favorite book. What does she reach for? Her childhood copy of Little House in the Big Woods, first in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series:

Only another true Little House-lover could understand what the books had meant to her as a child. … Laura’s adventures had captivated. Laura’s struggles had inspired. Laura had been a faithful friend when no one else understood. Laura’s stories had sparked Chloe’s interest in history, her hobbies, her career and professional passions. This book led me here, Chloe thought.

“Here” is the huge living history museum where Chloe works as curator of collections—the same museum where I once worked as an interpreter and curator. Chloe is not me, but there’s a lot of me in Chloe. Laura’s stories led me “here” as well—happily writing mysteries about a curator who is passionate about historic sites and stories.

For those not in the know, the original eight-book series was autobiographical fiction, written by Laura and edited by her daughter Rose. As Laura grows from a young girl to a married teen, her family moves from Wisconsin to Kansas to Minnesota and, finally, to South Dakota. When I was a little girl in suburban Maryland, the books transported me to pioneer days in the Midwest. I’ve been fascinated by the past, and historic places, ever since.

Periodically I re-read the Little House books. They hold up well for adults. The stories are nuanced, with undercurrents I missed as a kid. And I’ve realized that the time spent with the Little House books over the years has influenced my own writing.

Wilder drew characters so well they become real in readers’ minds. Fictional Laura demonstrates her resiliency and spunk in many ways, but she is not immune to yearning and hurt. And the writing always shows. When Laura is a small child, readers know exactly how she feels one spooky night when Pa has not come home:

Laura listened to the wind in the Big Woods. All around the house the wind went crying as though it were lost in the dark and the cold. The wind sounded frightened. (Little House in the Big Woods)

In the early chapters of By the Banks of Plum Creek, writer-Laura made exquisite use of foreshadowing as Pa promises again and again that high times are on the horizon. When Ma protests moving into a dugout: “It’s only till I harvest the first wheat crop,” said Pa. “Then you’ll have a fine house and I’ll have horses and maybe even a buggy. This is great wheat country, Caroline!” Some readers may recall that plagues of grasshoppers completely decimated crops and dreams, and left the Ingalls family deep in debt.

Time and place emerge vividly on every page. In real life Laura painted word pictures for her blind sister, and that skill served her well as a novelist:

The great round moon hung in the sky and its radiance poured over a silvery world. …Laura’s heart swelled. She felt herself a part of the wide land, of the far deep sky and the brilliant moonlight. She wanted to fly. (By the Shores of Silver Lake)

Laura Ingalls Wilder evoked the past with specific sensory details. She presented compelling characters. She carefully structured the stories to have a satisfying beginning, middle, and end. Her books have endured, selling millions of copies all around the world. One set still sits on my bookshelf. They are a talisman of my childhood, when they inspired my lifelong love of history and stories.


Bestselling author Kathleen Ernst writes mysteries and historical fiction. Her latest titles are Tradition of Deceit: A Chloe Ellefson Mystery (for adults) and Traitor in the Shipyard: A Caroline Mystery (for kids).


This Writers on Reading essay was originally published in At the Scene eNews November 2014 as a first-look exclusive to our enewsletter subscribers. For more special content available first to our enewsletter subscribers, sign up here.