Set in Wisconsin, the eighth novel in Kathleen Ernst’s series about historical site curator Chloe Ellefson finds her spending a week at the old mining town of Mineral Point for work at the historic Pendarvis house. Work gets off to a very rocky start when news breaks that Pendarvis is in danger of being closed by the state, and the blame seems to rest at the feet of the larger historical site where Chloe works, making her reception by the Pendarvis staff none too friendly. Chloe’s enthusiasm for the site and her friendship with the head curator, Claudia, help her get through the week as things go from bad to worse when a corpse turns up.
In addition to her work at Pendarvis, Chloe and her cop boyfriend, Roelke, take the visit as an opportunity to join his buddy Adam at the old stone mining cottage he’s rehabbing nearby. Unfortunately, a skeleton is uncovered in Adam’s basement and his grandmother Tamsin, to whom the house once belonged, asks Chloe to see if she can find out anything about it.
Ernst has two other story threads: one concerns Roelke’s struggle with his cousin’s ex, who is stalking her; and one goes back in time to follow a Cornish family making their way to Wisconsin to lay claim to their own mine. The family—a sister, Mary, and two brothers—live in a “badger hole,” a hole in the ground (hence Wisconsin’s moniker as the Badger State). Their story is so good and so interesting, full of historical detail and heartbreaking circumstances, I almost hated to be dragged back to the present-day story line.
As Chloe retraces Mary’s footsteps, slowly discovering things about her, readers can see how historical research is conducted and how small some of the things that spark a revelation are—a piece of china, say, or the signature on the bottom of a rocking chair. Chloe is interested in everyday lives and her love of the past illuminates them for the reader.
I was captivated by this novel. Ernst holds all the story threads in her hands very lightly, providing the right doses of suspense, danger, and mystery in the right amounts at the right times. She helpfully includes both references and photographs to help the reader visualize what she’s writing about. This was a lovely reading experience.