I Gave My Heart to Know This by Ellen Baker

Summary ~ I Gave My Heart to Know This ~ In January 1944, Grace Anderson, Lena Maki, and Lena’s mother, Violet, have joined the growing ranks of women working for the war effort. Though they find satisfaction in their jobs at a Wisconsin shipyard, it isn’t enough to distract them from the anxieties of wartime, or their fears for the men they love: Lena’s twin brother, Derrick, and Grace’s high school sweetheart, Alex. When shattering news arrives from the front, the lives of the three women are pitched into turmoil. As one is pushed to the brink of madness, the others are forced into choices they couldn’t have imagined—and their lives will never be the same. 
More than five decades later, Violet’s great-granddaughter, Julia, returns to the small farmhouse where Violet and Lena once lived. Listless from her own recent tragedy, Julia begins to uncover the dark secrets that shattered her family, eventually learning that redemption—and love—can be found in the most unexpected places. 

Well my dear Ellen Baker, you have done it again!!!  I Gave My Heart to Know This is an intricately woven tale of family, friendship, love and loss and it is simply amazing.  Ellen Baker’s debut novel, Keeping The House, is one of my all-time favorite novels and her sophomore release sits right up there with it.  This book had me reading when I could and even when I really shouldn’t have.  Baker’s mastery of character development as well as plot twists and turns kept the pages flying and are what makes her so great and her novels very memorable. 

Grace, Violet, Lena, Joe and Jago found themselves in tragic times along with many of our great-grandparents and grandparents.  The times were WWII and the U.S. was asked to make the sacrifice and help its military overseas by giving blood, sweat and tears.  Grace, Violet, Lena and their friend “Boots” joined the work force as welders and ship builders.  Relief from the dangerous work and long hours came from Lena’s twin brother Derrick’s letters from his military base in California and later the Pacific theater.  On Lena’s suggestion, Grace and Derrick became pen-pals and soon star-crossed lovers who never met but made plans for after Derrick’s return home.  That never came and from that sorrow and heartbreak grew lies, deception and more heartbreak.  The family never quite recovered from the loss of the golden brother/son who wanted to see the world. 

Baker’s storytelling crescendos throughout the story but reaches great volume when later generations discover hidden letters and secrets that tore the family apart all those years ago.  The history of our nation is rich and told well in I Gave My Heart to Know This.  Little known facts enriched the everyday actions and helped create a very realistic feeling for the reader.  I feel like these characters truly lived there on that rural farm and cried real tears.  Though most of the time the vibe of the book is sad and melancholy, I was rewarded with one of the best endings I’ve read as of late.

I can’t tell you with enough urgency TO BUY I GAVE MY HEART TO KNOW THIS ON AUGUST 2nd and while you’re waiting for that day to come TO READ KEEPING THE HOUSE NOW! Sorry for “yelling” but I felt it extremely necessary. 🙂

Thank you to the lovely, kind, friendly and interesting Ellen Baker for thinking of me when she received her galleys of I Gave My Heart to Know This and felt the need to get one to me as early as she did.  I’m sorry it took so long to finally read it!  I adore her and our pen-pal friendship.  XOXO

{Rating ~ 5 out of 5}

And The Winner of Keeping The House Is…

... BEASTMOMMA!!!! 

Congratulations BM!  Please e-mail me an address that Ellen Baker can send you your signed copy of Keeping The House to. 

We had a total of 33 entrants, four of which were eligible for two entries because they posted about the giveaway on their own blog.  Using Random.org the winner was Beastmomma.  Ellen Baker and I were very excited about how many of you entered this giveaway and we really appreciate it. 

The excitement that was clear in your comments about Keeping The House will hopefully drive you to buy the book and read it for yourself.  Also, if you would like to try your hand again at winning a copy of Keeping The House, Stephanie over at The Written Word, now called Stephanie’s Written Word will be hosting a giveaway later this month.

Guest Post ~ Author of Keeping The House, Ellen Baker

I have had so much fun reading KEEPING THE HOUSE and corresponding with author, Ellen Baker, on our interview and receiving her guest post for Planet Books.  At the end of the week we will learn whom she will be sending a signed copy of her breakthrough novel to.  Ellen has been so generous and that is even more apparent when I received her awesome, revealing and thoughtful guest post this morning.  I hope that you enjoy reading it and hearing what she has to say about herself and her experiences writing KEEPING THE HOUSE as much as I did.  Enjoy! 

KEEPING THE HOUSE evolved out of my experiences and fascinations over a period of about ten years, beginning when I was going into my junior year of college.  I’d always loved stories and loved to write – in fact, by this time, I’d already written two novels.  (Of course, I have to add the disclaimer that all writers add about their first works – they were awful – but I only mean to illustrate that I really loved writing and had a definite degree of stick-to-it-iveness.  As it turned out, it was all good practice!)  So, that summer when I was 20, I got an internship at a local historical society in a beautiful little town on the shores of Green Bay in Door County, Wisconsin, and I began to write a novel about a family called the Mickelsons who had lost a son in World War I.  It was 1919, and the family came to their summer home in “Stone Harbor, Wisconsin” for the first summer after the war and tried to pretend nothing had happened. 

I worked on this novel for several years, but meanwhile, the life that was unfolding for me would ultimately inspire – in bits and pieces – KEEPING THE HOUSE.  For example, after college, I spent a year working at a living history farm, where I learned how to quilt by hand, and spent many hours gathered around the quilt frame with my co-workers trading stories and gossip.  Dolly’s quilting experiences are loosely based on mine – though no one ever pulled out any of my too-big, beginner stitches!

Then, in March of 2000, I met Jay Baker, a soldier in the 101st Airborne, stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.  He was only 21 (I was a worldly 24) and told me before I left to drive back north – I was living in Door County again by this time – that he had fallen for me.  “Head over heels, I think is the term,” he said, with an endearing humility and a little laugh.  Three months later, we were engaged, despite the 700 miles between us.  We spent hours on the phone, and counted down to our usually monthly visits.  Each time we were together, the pain of separating became more extreme.  “One of us is going to have to quit our job,” he said.  “And if I quit mine, I go to jail!”  So, in the summer of 2001, I did.  I got hired back on at The Homeplace and moved down on Memorial Day, just three months before the wedding we’d already planned.  Jay was scheduled to get out of the Army that December, so I planned to live with him in Kentucky for six months, doing a lot of writing (plus, I had finished the 1919 novel and was trying to get an agent for it) and getting married in the midst of it. 

Well, the “getting an agent” part didn’t happen – I collected a folder full of rejections –  and the writing part didn’t work out much better, because we were married on September 8, 2001, and, after 9/11, we waited for word that Jay would be sent to Afghanistan.  And I learned that pinning my hopes to a soldier in a time like that was a bit like running myself back and forth through an old wringer washer, day after day after day.  Though I didn’t make a conscious choice to write about this experience, both Dolly and Wilma experience the same sort of helplessness – Dolly in the unwanted move to Pine Rapids and her consequent difficulties, and Wilma when her sons go off to war.

But I had one more stop before KEEPING THE HOUSE would come to be.  In 2002, just after Jay got out of the Army – it was an anticlimactic, near-miss of an ending, as he got out just about a week before his unit was sent overseas – I became the curator of a World War II museum in northern Wisconsin.  Part of my job was to conduct oral history interviews with veterans, and they told me things they hadn’t spoken of in sixty years.  I was honored to be the one that these men trusted with their stories, and I felt a real bond with them, or at least with the boys they’d been during the war (I often didn’t find out anything about what they’d done for the rest of their lives).  I would never have been able to write about the troubled JJ Mickelson without having known these veterans – though I should clarify (due to JJ’s frequent bad behavior!) that JJ is purely a product of my imagination.

Meanwhile, I was trying hard to fulfill my role as a newly-married homeowner!  In 2002, Jay and I moved into an old colonial-style house, and, much to my dismay, I suddenly began to imagine that I had to be a perfect “housewife.”  I found myself more concerned with whether the dishes were washed and the grocery shopping done than with any of my other goals.  Dust had never bothered me before, but now, seeing it gathered in corners seemed to me a representation of my personal failures.  As a person who had always enjoyed the life inside my mind more than real life, homemaking was decidedly not my cup of tea.  Yet, some women I knew were appalled by my lack of interest in cleaning, and Jay’s co-workers would comment disparagingly on the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the lunchbox he’d packed – gasp – for himself.  To his credit, Jay would scoff at those who scorned me for not cooking and cleaning for him appropriately.  But, like Dolly, I tended to listen too much to what other people said, and couldn’t help but take the criticism somewhat to heart.

Ultimately, I never got an agent for the 1919 novel, and that turned out to be a good thing, because I decided to shelve it and start something new – a  novel that would concern my beloved Mickelson family during WWII (so I thought – of course, as it turned out, I would write about fifty years of their lives).  I also decided to give up my full-time job at the museum in favor of part-time work at a bookstore.  This allowed me to really pursue writing – I attended workshops, read, studied, researched, and met other writers who would read my work and give me feedback.  And, of course, I wrote and wrote and rewrote and rewrote.  Three years later, I had finished KEEPING THE HOUSE, plus gotten an agent and a two-book contract with Random House.  Those were probably the hardest three years of work of my life, and they were absolutely the best and most rewarding, too. 

Now, I’m working on my next novel, also historical fiction – my main characters are women shipbuilders during WWII.  They’re very strong women, but, like Dolly and Wilma, they’re conflicted about many things.  Every day, I look forward to seeing what they’ll do next!

You can read my review of KEEPING THE HOUSE and enter the giveaway that ends this Friday night HERE and catch up with Ellen Baker in our interview HERE.  Also, be sure to check out her website at http://www.ellenbakernovels.com/ as well as her MySpace page HERE.  She also created a MySpace page for her main character Dolly and you can check it out HERE.  Ellen has upcoming appearances through October and you can check out her schedule HERE. 

Interview With Author Ellen Baker

Author Ellen Baker of the newly released paperback Keeping The House ever so graciously accepted my Q&A request and kindly took time out of her busy schedule to answer a dozen questions about her book and writing.  Ellen is currently promoting her novel, Keeping The House with the help of a book tour.  Her event schedule and more information about her and her book can be found on her website HEREKeeping The House was listed as one of the Chicago Tribune’s “Favorite Books of 2007”, was a featured selection of the Doubleday Book Club, and was selected as an “Insider Discovery” title of the Literary Guild.

To learn more about Keeping The House and enter in the signed copy book giveaway please check out my review HERE.  To refresh your memory, here is a summary of the book followed by my interview with the lovely Ellen Baker.

Summary ~ “When Dolly Magnuson moves to Pine Rapids, Wisconsin, in 1950, she discovers that making marriage work is harder than it looks in the pages of the Ladies’ Home Journal.  Dolly tries to adapt to her new life by keeping the house, supporting her husband’s career, and joining the Ladies Aid quilting circle.  Soon her loneliness and restless imagination are seized by a vacant house, owned by the once-prominent Mickelson family.  As Dolly’s life and marriage become increasingly difficult, she begins to lose herself in piecing together the story of the Mickelson men and women – and unravels dark secrets woven through the generations of a family.  As Keeping the House moves back and forth in time, it eloquently explores themes of heroism and passion, of men’s struggles with fatherhood and war, and of women’s conflicts with issues of conformity, identity, forbidden dreams, and love.” 

PB:  What originally inspired you to write the family saga that became Keeping The House?
 
Ellen:  I was originally inspired to write about the Mickelson family when I spent a summer in beautiful Door County, Wisconsin, during college, about ten years ago.  I was working at the local historical society at the time and learning a lot about the history of the area, and I found it so interesting that “summer people” came back to this idealized place year after year for a break from their everyday lives and concerns, especially since this was a lifestyle I’d never experienced.  I wondered what would happen to a family hoping to go back to their old summer way of life after suffering a terrible tragedy, something they wouldn’t be able to “get over” just by escaping to this gorgeous place.  The story expanded from there, and that original setting – the summer of 1919 following Jack Mickelson’s return from World War I – ultimately became just one chapter of Keeping The House.

PB:  Who was your first character and which one came the easiest to you to write a point of view from?
 
Ellen:  The Mickelson family came first, all at once – John, Wilma, Jack, Chase, Harry, and Jinny.  Dolly Magnuson came toward the end of the process, but she was the easiest to write about.
 
PB:  I have read that you admitted that Harry Mickelson is your favorite character.  Who is your least favorite?  Are you a character in your book?

Ellen:  I really don’t have a “least favorite” character; I imagine I feel about my characters the way I would if I had children – I love them no matter how badly they behave!  I don’t believe that I’m any character in my book, though of course they all contain elements of me.  I’m like Dolly in many ways, although I didn’t think so when I was first writing about her.  I’m more of a “sit back and think” person while she’s “act first and think later,” but we’re both dreamers and romantics and we both wish and strive for the impossible.  I think that Anne is probably who I wish I was… and Wilma is who I might have been had I lived a century ago.
 
PB:  You have a powerful attraction to the World War eras and have devoted so much of yourself to study and preserve this time in American history.  What about this period attracted you in the first place?
 
Ellen:  I’m not sure exactly where it began, but the more I learned about the first half of the twentieth century in America, the more I found it all so fascinating.  I love the fashion, the music, the way people use language.  I love the fact that technology is developing so rapidly and changing the way people live.  And I think that during the wars, life was lived at a very intense pitch.  There’s a lot of love and romance and a lot of violence and grief; I guess the contrast and the collision of all these forces are what fascinate me.

PB:  When you write, do you use paper and pen or a computer?  Do you have a time and place that you have to write within?
 
Ellen:  I use a laptop computer, and I like to be comfortable – so I’m usually sprawled out on the couch, with a cup of tea not far away.  I find that first thing in the morning is my best time to write, but I’ll write and revise all day long if I can.

PB:  What is your favorite part of the novel writing process?
 
Ellen:  I don’t think I could pick just one part of it – I enjoy the whole process.  I love research and character development, I love writing a first draft and being surprised by what happens, and I love editing and seeing all the elements of the story coming together into a coherent whole.
 
PB:  Did the story go the way you always thought it would or did twists and turns surprise you as you wrote them?
 
Ellen:  There were many, many surprises along the way!  When I started writing, I really didn’t know what the story was going to be, exactly, beyond the idea of following the Mickelson family through the two world wars.  I didn’t at all write the chapters of Keeping The House in the sequence they appear in the book now.  Some of the earliest scenes I wrote were about Elissa and Nick meeting at the dance, and about Wilma making pickles, as well as the World War I scenes from John’s point of view (including the one that now is on page 398!).   I’d actually been working on the book for almost two years before Dolly came on the scene.  That she became the centerpiece of the book – what I ended up structuring the rest of the novel around – was the biggest surprise of all.
 
PB:  You wrote Wilma Mickelson as a piano virtuoso.  Do you have a musical background?  If so, is the piano your instrument and what is your favorite piece of music to play?
 
Ellen:  I made Wilma a pianist because she needed to have an abiding passion, something she was conflicted about giving up.  I’m not a pianist – I just took a couple of years of lessons when I was about seven and eight years old – but I was pretty serious about the flute when I was in high school and into college, so I can identify with the process of practicing a piece to try to achieve perfection.  I’ve always liked playing the piano for fun, though, and I’ve enjoyed attempting to play Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique, which Wilma plays (much more successfully!) in the novel. 
 
PB:  Have you ever made any of the recipes you researched for Dolly to prepare for her husband Byron?  Any favorites?  In your first years of marital bliss did you keep a cooking journal like Dolly?
 
Ellen:  You’re funny!  I haven’t made any of Dolly’s recipes, actually, but a bakery is preparing her Lacy Raisin Wafers for book clubs (people can visit my website to sign up to win some) so I’ve sampled those and they’re very good.  I had fun researching the recipes and planning the menus for Dolly and Byron… and when I was newly married I guess I did try to plan out each week’s menus and pay attention to what my husband liked and didn’t like, but I certainly wasn’t as efficient as Dolly!  I imagine if I’d been married in 1950 I would probably have been just like her, though, in the context of those times.  Fortunately for me, getting married in 2001, I was able to put most of my obsessive creative energy into writing fiction.
 
PB:  Throughout Keeping The House you have quotes from different publications from the first half of the twentieth century.  Which one did you find most outrageous?
 
Ellen:  The quotes from the Look magazine article “The Other Woman Is Often the Creation of the Wife” and the idea that if a husband is having an affair it is up to his wife to “make adjustments” and “be more cheerful and attractive than usual” seem pretty outrageous. 
 
PB:  On your MySpace page you have posted a picture of a banister and two portraits.  Was there really a Mickelson family and house or are these pictures of your own banister and relatives?
 
Ellen:  The Mickelsons are totally fictional, and somewhere, someone is going to be surprised that I stole photos of their relatives out of a yearbook-type section of photos in a history about a small town in Wisconsin!  It wasn’t my intention – I got the book to help me lay out the town of Pine Rapids – but when I saw those photos, it was clear to me that that woman was Wilma and that man was Harry.  I always rifle through old photos at antique shops, too, to see if I can find unlabeled photos that seem to be a character.  The banister photo was taken in a bed and breakfast that I visited.  I stole architectural details from many B&B’s in Wisconsin to design the Mickelson house.
 
PB:  What is the most interesting question you have received while on your book tour to promote Keeping The House?
 
Ellen:  I’ve received lots of really interesting questions, but one that sticks out in my mind is “What is the significance of the color red for Dolly?”  I hadn’t really thought about it in those terms – somehow I always just knew she’d be drawn to the color.  I remember when I wrote Dolly’s first quilting group scene, there was no question in my mind what she would be wearing – the flaring white dress with red trim and the bright red lipstick (which makes her feel conspicuous among the subdued ladies of the group).  But as a result of getting this question, I realized that red does symbolize Dolly’s passion and daring, and shows how different she is from the other people in Pine Rapids.

Book Review & Giveaway ~ Keeping the House by Ellen Baker

Summary ~ “When Dolly Magnuson moves to Pine Rapids, Wisconsin, in 1950, she discovers that making marriage work is harder than it looks in the pages of the Ladies’ Home Journal.  Dolly tries to adapt to her new life by keeping the house, supporting her husband’s career, and joining the Ladies Aid quilting circle.  Soon her loneliness and restless imagination are seized by a vacant house, owned by the once-prominent Mickelson family.  As Dolly’s life and marriage become increasingly difficult, she begins to lose herself in piecing together the story of the Mickelson men and women – and unravels dark secrets woven through the generations of a family.  As Keeping the House moves back and forth in time, it eloquently explores themes of heroism and passion, of men’s struggles with fatherhood and war, and of women’s conflicts with issues of conformity, identity, forbidden dreams, and love.” 
                             

A Novel

Keeping the House by Ellen Baker is much more than it seems when you first look at the cover.  The new paperback version, released last Tuesday, July 15, 2008, is very retro with the simple picture of a red and cream checkered apron and a weathered look to the ink, as if this copy had been collecting dust on a shelf for the last sixty years.  But what this book holds inside is an epic story about three generations of the Mickelson Family of Pine Rapids, Wisconsin, the effect of two world wars on a family and the people surrounding them as well as a curse placed on the gorgeous, imposing, massive family house that overlooks the town as if looking down its nose.  At least that is what the towns people, especially members of the Ladies Aid, think of the Mickelsons and their house on the hill.  Little does the town know that this family of wealth and apparent great fortune in all they touch really suffers from heartbreak, deceit, family secrets and gut wrenching sadness.
 
The matriarch of the Mickelson family is Wilma.  She first arrives in Pine Rapids as a new bride in the summer of 1896.  She has left her family and her beloved piano studies behind and is now the newest member of the successful Mickelsons and their lumber mill.  Wilma escapes the doldrums of everyday married life with the help of her piano and the sonatas and waltzes she plays all day long.  As I was reading I was curious what the pieces she was playing actually sounded like so I checked them out.  I wasn’t surprised to discover that the three pieces that Baker wrote into Wilma’s repertoire are all devastatingly sad and melancholy in sound.  Chopin’s Waltz in B Minor and Nocturne in B-flat Minor are both utterly beautiful pieces of piano music that sweep around the room.  As I listen to them now, I can easily see Wilma Mickelson playing these pieces with such emotion.  That these pieces of music were some of the only friends this character had in this strange town is heartbreaking.  The third piece of music which filled the house on the hill when Wilma still played was Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique.  A popular and well known Beethoven movement, the notes create a sound that represents hopes and dreams but then reminds the listener that reality is not always what you hope it will be.
 
Wilma’s husband John is a man of drive and power.  He wishes only the best for his new bride but knows that her life may not be what she wanted.  They have four children but we only really get to know two of them; Jack & Harry Michelson.  Their stories span both The Great War and World War II.  The segments when the voice of Jack and his son J.J. share stories of being Marines at war are so vivid and full of the terrors of war, it’s hard for me to believe that even an author with as much knowledge of this period of history as Ellen Baker has could write of the experience of war with such vivid imagery and emotion.  It blew me away!  Keeping the House shows the spoils of war and when these troops return to the real world, they are not what their families remember them to be.  Unfortunately this book can give insight to what our present day troops are going through mentally when they return home to their loved ones but are haunted by destruction, death, brutality and unwhole bodies, both physically and spiritually. 
 
This book holds some of the most memorable female characters I have ever read too.  Besides Wilma Mickelson there is Dolly Magnuson, the newlywed who is the present day (1950) reflection of Wilma.  She is uninspired and bored in her role as wife and housekeeper to her husband Byron.  She wishes for adventure but settles for a seat in the Ladies Aid quilting circle.  After learning that these ladies know of the Mickelson family and what they believe to be true of the family members’ business, Dolly becomes obsessed with the idea of asking Byron to buy her the old, forgotten and apparently deserted Mickelson house.  Dolly starts to piece together the history of the family when she breaks into the house on the hill and begins cleaning it up, in hopes of living there one day with her husband and having a perfect marriage with him.  She comes across pictures and Wilma’s old piano but also discovers that not everything is as the town gossips think it was.  One of my favorite quotes from the book is Dolly imagining what the town gossips might say about her.
 
“Maybe Pine Rapids wouldn’t be so bad.  Even if she was going to stay married, that didn’t mean she had to care what the town thought of her.  Let them talk!  Starting with tonight, when they would comment on how shocking is was that her husband had had to take her out for supper on a Tuesday.  She could hear them now: ‘I’ll bet she was reading a novel all day, instead of fulfilling her obligation to the household!  She’s just spoiled, expects dinner out like it was her due!'”
 
Just when you suspect that the story will continue down one road, a twist comes out of nowhere and makes you second guess the characters’ motives and this continues through to the end.  As is life!  I absolutely loved Keeping the House and will say that it has become one of my favorite books I have ever read.  I loved the character and plot development and the periods in which the story was set.  Ellen Baker succeeded in creating a book rich in detail, that is thought provoking and moving.  An edge-of-your-seat gripping tale of family secrets and love lost and won.  At the front of my copy of Keeping the House, there is a list of reviews from newspapers and authors.  The Booklist review shares my feelings about this book.
 
“Brimming with luscious detail that authenticate the story’s various time periods, from early to mid-twentieth century, Baker’s accomplished, ambitious debut novel is a majestic, vibrant multigenerational saga in the finest tradition of the genre.”     – Booklist
{Rating ~ 5 out of 5}
Author, Ellen Baker, will be joining us in the coming weeks with a guest post.  She has also graciously agreed to provide a signed copy of Keeping The House for a giveaway contest here at Planet Books.  To qualify for a chance to win a signed copy of this wonderful book, please leave your name in the comment section of this post by Midnight EST on Friday, August 1st, 2008.  To get an extra chance to win, please write a post on your own blog about this contest and link it back to my review.  Check back here on Saturday, August 2nd to see who wins.  Good Luck!! 

You can learn more about Ellen Baker at her website
http://www.ellenbakernovels.com/ and her MySpace page http://www.myspace.com/authorellenbaker.

Today’s Favorite Song

As I’m reading Ellen Baker’s KEEPING THE HOUSE, I keep hearing big band music in my head.  I decided to check out videos from one of the coolest new/retro groups around… The Puppini Sisters.  They are a trio consisting of three singers, Italian Marcella Puppini and English Stephanie O’Brian and Kate Mullins, who perform 1940’s style close-harmony music.  They are really amazing and I love the three part harmonies that they create as well as the music style they sing in.  I’ve provided a few videos for you to watch here.  You may recognize some of the songs here as covers of favorite pop tunes from the last few decades.  This music is exactly what I hear in my head as I read KEEPING THE HOUSE