Death on the Prairie
The series of Chloe Ellefson mysteries, which deal with murders taking place during the 80s in various Wisconsin historical sites, expands with this latest volume by Kathleen Ernst. Death on the Prairie ranges further afield, through a series of Midwestern sites associated with Laura Ingalls Wilder and her Little House on the Prairie stories. The books were published from 1932-1943, describing events from her pioneer childhood in the 1870s.
I read the books as a kid, of course, and we probably watched the TV show, but I didn’t realize there was such a fandom (in three strains, one each for the series, the stories, and then real life). Exploring its nature was appealing to me, as Chloe and her estranged sister travel on a road trip through the different places Wilder lived and meet a variety of people interested in her life (although not everyone is a fan). It’s 1983 in this book, so the TV show has just concluded its nine-season run.
There’s another strong appeal to this novel, and that’s quilting. Chloe has found, courtesy of an old neighbor, a quilt that might have belonged to Wilder, another mystery she’s trying to solve as events unfold. Her sister Kari is also a quilter, working on pieces as they travel through Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota, Kansas, and Missouri, and various patterns play a role in the story.
Each chapter opens with a quote from one of Wilder’s books, tying together the lives of Laura and Mary with those of the characters here. Chloe has been invited to a symposium of Little House fans, discussing the authenticity of the historical processes Wilder describes. On a personal level, her boyfriend Roelke is exploring his family heritage, as his grandfather’s farm homestead goes up for sale. Meanwhile, something is up with Kari and her husband and children. As the sisters travel, a series of accidents occur, from a deadly allergic reaction to an historical site on fire to an out-of-control bus.
I learned a lot about Wilder’s real life, reading this, as well as the ways autobiography is recast for fiction. While the Little House books were based on elements of Wilder’s life, they were fictionalized to make them more suitable for children. As Chloe and Kari visit historical sites across the Midwest, they learn more about what her life was really like. (The publisher provided a digital review copy.)