The fifth novel in Kathleen Ernst’s series about historical museum curator Chloe Ellefson takes Chloe away from her work in Wisconsin to Minneapolis. It’s 1983 and Chloe’s friend Ariel is working to convert an old Gold Medal Flour mill into a museum when her boss turns up murdered. As Chloe tries to help her friend, she works off her anxiety by baking her way through old Pillsbury Bake-Off recipe books. That’s a response to stress I can get behind.
Meanwhile Chloe’s boyfriend, Officer Roehlke McKenn, is dealing with a second murder back home in Wisconsin—his partner and best friend, Rick. Roehlke shuts out Chloe after Rick is killed, and he takes on the task of finding his friend’s killer himself.
In keeping with the series style, there is also a historical story line set in the past. Reminding me a bit of Jeanne Dams’ view of turn-of-the-century South Bend, Indiana, in her Hilda Johanssen series, Ernst illuminates the hardscrabble life of the mill workers, starting around 1880, using a particular Polish-American family and a woman named Lidia as her focus. Lidia is one of the first to work in a section of the mill for female employees only called “No Man’s Land.”
Ernst illustrates the fundamental importance of grain for human life through her depiction of the mill, which at its peak produced flour for 12 million loaves of bread daily. She also gets to the heart of some elemental truths about male-female relationships, highlighting the problem of domestic abuse from 1917 forward.
If it sounds like the author is cramming a lot of material into her novel, she is, but she handles it easily, moving effortlessly between story threads. She also had me Googling madly for images of the Mill City Museum and for information on wycinanki, the Polish art of paper cutting that pops up throughout the novel.
With a wry voice and a light touch, this was a pleasant read with a really strong central female character. I liked Chloe’s unusual job, and along with enjoying a good story, I enjoyed learning a bit. The book includes a few photos at the end which brought things even more to life. Having lived in Minneapolis myself in the ’80s, where I worked across from the Pillsbury building, it held even more resonance to me. All in all, a very enjoyable reading experience.