The Attic on Queen Street by Karen White

Karen White and I are talking about ghosts, particularly the ghosts haunting Melanie Middleton Trenholm in White’s latest novel, The Attic on Queen Street, the last in the series set in haunted Charleston, South Carolina.

“Do you believe in ghosts?” she asks.

Not really, I reply, but I also don’t like staying in places that are supposedly haunted when I’m by myself.

White feels the same way because, as we both agree, you just never know.

It’s then that her phone goes dead.

“I don’t what happened,” says White when she calls back. “My phone was charged and everything.”

Coincidence? Most likely. But still, it makes you wonder.

But phones going dead are the least of the problems for Melanie, a Charleston real estate agent with young twins, a husband who is deciding whether he wants to stay in the marriage, and a teenaged stepdaughter whose room is haunted. Indeed, the entire house on Tradd Street is haunted. Some of the ghosts are helpful, some are evil, and one is the ghost of a dog—which is fine as it gives Melanie’s dog a companion to play with. And to make matters worse, Melanie’s young daughter is already showing signs of being able to see ghosts.

Ghosts are such a problem that Melanie learned early on to sing ABBA songs loudly to drown out the sounds of the dead people trying to talk to her. But that only works sometimes and in this novel there’s plenty of evil for Melanie to deal with both living and dead. For starters there’s Marc Longo, who stole her husband’s manuscript and turned himself into a bestselling author. Longo is now heading a film crew in Melanie’s house while underhandedly trying to discover the diamonds he believes are hidden there. Melanie is also trying to aid a good friend in discovering who murdered her sister years ago—with the help of the cryptic messages the deceased sister keeps sending her way. And then there’s Jack, her handsome husband. They’re still in love but Jack is darned tired of Melanie always getting herself into deadly situations.

White first introduced us to Melanie in The House on Tradd Street in what was to be a two book series.

“But when it came out and was so popular, my publisher said let’s make it four,” says White. “This is the seventh and I’m really going to miss them.”

Well, kind of, as White is continuing the theme of a haunted city and the Trenholm family, only with Melanie’s stepdaughter in the key role who has to deal with her only supernatural beings when she move  to New Orleans in a book due out this coming March called The Shop on Royal Street.

Interestingly, the Tradd Street series was originally going to be set in New Orleans. White went to Tulane University and in 2005 she was all set to go with her family back to New Orleans to do research for the first book when Hurricane Katrina hit.

“I knew that there was no way with all the catastrophic flooding, and deaths that I could write this story without having Katrina in it and this wasn’t that kind of book,” says White, who has authored 23 books,

Choosing Charleston made sense as White had ancestors who lived in Charleston in the late 1700s and family who had lived on Tradd Street. In ways, she says that when she visited, she felt the pull of genetic memory—a sensation of a past shared life.

“I smelled what they call pluff—which is rotted vegetation,” recalls White, “and I said oh doesn’t that smell so wonderful.”

Coincidence? Doubtful.

The Attic on Tradd Street is also available as an audiobook and electronically.

America’s Femme Fatale: The Story of Serial Killer Belle Gunness

A Norwegian farm girl, her family so poor, they often went hungry, is seduced by a rich landowner’s son. But despite her dreams, he has no plans to make her his wife. Abandoned, she sees only one path forward or she’ll sink into the black hole of her family’s poverty. But her first goal is revenge and after the landowner’s son dies a horrid death amidst whispers of poison, she boards a boat and sails to America. Norway’s gain is America’s loss.

Her name changed through the years but after the mysterious deaths of two husbands, numerous men, women, and children, she goes down in his as Belle Gunness.  An entrepreneur whose business was murder, Gunness felt no qualms seducing men for their money and dispatching them with her axe—filling her farmland with her victims.

As her crimes were about to be discovered, her solid brick home burnt to the ground and workers battling the smoke and flames discovered the bodies of her three children and a woman without a head.  Was it Belle  or did she get away with one more murder, absconding with close to a million dollars. It’s a question the world has been asking since 1908.

America’s Femme Fatale: The Story of Serial Killer Belle Gunness (Indiana University Press/Red Lightning Oct. 4, 2021; $20).

What people are saying about America’s Femme Fatale.

Ammeson uses astute research and punchy prose to chronicle Belle’s transformation from destitute farm girl to one of history’s most egregious female serial killers. . . . Compact and captivating, this salacious tale of murderous greed during the early twentieth century will be devoured quickly by true-crime fans.– Michelle Ross ― BOOKLIST / Amer Library Assn

It’s a mesmerizing cautionary tale I had to keep reading despite the late-night hour. . . . Ammeson writes narrative nonfiction with a sense of drama to propel us along the unbelievable.– Rita Kohn ― NUVO

America’s Femme Fatale is the detailed story of Belle Gunness, one of the nation’s most prolific mass murderers. Ammeson recounts the horrific events with dry wit and corrects many errors found in previous accounts. Gunness stands out in an infamous crowd because she was a woman; she killed men, women and children rather than choosing from among one narrow section of victimology; and her murders seem to have been rooted in greed rather than lust, the serial killer’s usual motive.– Keven McQueen, author of Murderous Acts: 100 Years of Crime in the Midwest

Jane Ammeson will be on Hoosier History Live talking to the show’s host Nelson Price about Belle Gunness. The show airs live from noon to 1 p.m. ET each Saturday on WICR 88.7 FM in Indianapolis. Or stream audio live from anywhere during the show. For those who miss the show, it’ll be available by podcast as well.

A Blissful Feast: Celebrations of Family, Food, and History

“In our culture we have lost our connection to cooking,” says Teresa Lust, author of  A Blissful Feast, Culinary Adventures in Italy’s Piedmont, Maremma, and Le Marche ( Pegasus Books 2020; $19.19 Amazon hardcover price), The Readable Feast’s 2020 winner for Best Food Memoir.

Teresa Lust

Lust, who teaches Italian at Dartmouth University in New Hampshire and also cooking classes, grew up in an Italian-American family, learning to cook from her mother and grandmother whose recipes were written by hand on little notecards. Wanting to discover and delve into Italian cuisine because of its meaning to her, she learned to speak Italian and traveled through the country of her ancestors.

“I wanted to see and feel the connections to the traditions and geography of the regions,” says Lust, whose previous book,  Pass the Polenta: and Other Writings from the Kitchen, was praised by Frances Mayes, author of Under the Tuscan Sun and Julia Child.

Going deep, she visits relatives and meets the people of the regions’ small towns, going into their kitchens to watch as they prepare food. It’s a constant learning process about the intricacies not only of the broad regional cookery of Italy that many of us are familiar with—that of Florence, Naples, or Sicily but of such places as Maremma, an area in western central Italy bordering the Tyrrhenian Sea and Le Marche, a region sandwiched between the Adriatic Sea and the Apennine Mountains.

“Italian food is very regional, and even in the regions its broken down by cities, and then gets smaller and smaller until each dish is an expression of oneself and it can be an affront and violation if others add ingredients or make changes,” she says. “There’s an integrity to the dish.”

It’s not the way we think of food here. Indeed, to me a recipe is to be altered by ingredients I have on hand so the idea of not changing is a thoughtful concept, one that I will think about. But then again, I’m not making family recipes dating back centuries and besides, old habits die hard. 

In Camerano, a town in Le Marche, an 80-year-old woman shows Lust how to hand-roll pasta with a three-foot rolling pin. In Manciano, she masters making Schiacciata  All’Uva, a grape flatbread with honey and rosemary that back home in New Hampshire takes her two days to complete.

But, Lust says, you only spend a few minutes in active work as if it were as easy as popping a frozen dinner into a microwave.

Intrigued by the food philosophy of the people she cooks with, she goes beyond recipe and its ingredients to their history and what they represent.

Acquacotta—such a beautiful word and beautiful dish–but then you find  out what it really means–cooked water and that it was born out of poverty made by people who had nothing,” Lust tells me when we chat on the phone.

In her description, acquacotta is a rustic soup that nourished generations of the area’s shepherds and cowhands. It’s her way of adding poetry to food and to people who take such pride in what they cook.

Lust includes recipes in her book, but this is not a glossy cookbook, but rather a lovely and thoughtful journey of rediscovering roots and meaning.

The two of us discuss growing up with ethnic relatives and how important the culture of the table was for us when young.  It does seem to be something that is missing from our daily lives and Lust is hoping to reconnect people to food and help them see the importance of  taking the time to bring friends and family to the table to enjoy a meal.

In the cooking classes she teaches she demonstrates how to make Italian food  and encourages participants to talk to her in Italian. She feels that she is helping forge an important connection that way.

“I have people contact me through the website who said they tried the gnocchi and though they never thought they could make it, they found it was easy for them,” she says with a touch of pride.

For more, visit www.teresalust.com

President Obama’s Annual List of Favorites

“As 2020 comes to a close, I wanted to share my annual lists of favorites,” Barack Obama, the 42nd President of the United States, tweeted to his 127.5 million followers. “I’ll start by sharing my favorite books this year, deliberately omitting what I think is a pretty good book – A Promised Land – by a certain 44th president. I hope you enjoy reading these as much as I did.”

Somehow, the President forgot to include adding one of my books to his list again. Well, there’s always next year.

Jack by Marilynne Robinson

Caste by Isabel Wilkerson

Luster by Raven Leilani

Sharks in the time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn
Twilight of Democracy by Anne Applebaum

Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar
The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio
Long Bright River by Liz Moore
Memorial Drive Natasha Trethewey
Deacon King Kong by James McBride
Missionaries by Phil Klay
The Vanishing Half by Britt Bennett
The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson
The Glass House by Emily St. John Mandel

The Last Voyageurs: Retracing La Salle’s Journey Across America: Sixteen Teenagers on an Adventure of a Lifetime

In her last year of college, Lorraine Boissoneault, an avowed Francophile and writer who lives in Chicago, became interested in the French history of North America and the journey undertaken by René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, the first European to travel from Montreal to the mouth of the Mississippi River.

Her fascination with the great explorer led to a conversation with an underwater diver and thus to the story of La Salle’s Le Griffon (The Griffin), the first full-sized sailing ship on the upper Great Lakes which disappeared in 1679 with six crew members and a load of furs—also making it the first shipwreck in the Great Lakes. Luckily La Salle had disembarked before the ship made its final voyage. She also learned about a Reid Lewis, a French teacher who decided to re-enact La Salle’s trip, an eight-month, 3,300-mile expedition he undertook with 16 students and six teachers dressed in the period clothing from that time to celebrate the country’s Bicentennial.

Interviewing the voyageurs as well as visiting places where La Salle had landed during the journey and reading original documents written in French (“nothing is ever quite the same in translation,” says Boissoneault), who wrote The Last Voyageurs: Retracing La Salle’s Journey Across America: Sixteen Teenagers on an Adventure of a Lifetime (Pegasus 2016; $27.95).

“It’s amazing when you think of how much they could withstand,” she says, meaning both La Salle and Lewis’ crews.

Indeed, Lewis and his group of students and educators had to trudge over 500 miles of Midwestern landscape during one of the coldest winters on record in the 20th century, paddle in Voyageur canoes across the storm tossed and freezing Great Lakes and, in keeping with their pledge to emulate La Salle, start their campfires with flint and wood.

Of all the thousands of miles they retraced, Lewis’ voyageurs felt that Canada’s Georgian Bay on Lake Huron was most unchanged and therefore the closest they came to what La Salle would have experienced in terms of the water and landscape.     

“We’re fascinated by history but you can’t go back no matter how hard you want to,” says Boissoneault noting she can’t imagine seeing Chicago without civilization as La Salle would have done. “The past is unobtainable. Most poignant for me is their walk across the Midwest. They were doing the same thing La Salle did and wearing the same clothes but nothing was like how it would have been in La Salle’s day.”

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

Susan Orlean’s newest book, The Library Book (Simon & Schuster, $28), is about a fire and a library but like all things this New York Times bestselling author writes (The Orchid Thief, Rin Tin Tin), it’s so much more. A lover of libraries since she was very young, Orlean had been toying with the idea of writing about the subject when her son, then six-years-old, announced that his class assignment was to write about a city employee and instead of the typical fireman or policeman interview, he wanted to write about a librarian.Susan Orlean_credit Noah FecksSusan Orlean_credit Noah Fecks         Then, after moving to Los Angeles, Orlean was at the Los Angeles Central Public Library when the librarian opened a book, took a sniff and announced that you could still smell the smoke. Orlean asked if that was from a time when smoking was allowed. The answer was no, instead the aroma dated back to April 29, 1986 when an inferno blazed for seven hours, reaching 2500 degrees. It took half of the Los Angeles’s firefighting resources to extinguish the blaze and by then flames and water had destroyed 400,000 books and damaged another 700,000.
“It was the combination of all of these that gave me the final push; it was as if I was being nudged, repeatedly, to look at libraries and find a narrative about them to write,” says Orlean, a staff writer at The New Yorker and author of seven books. “Learning about the fire was definitely the final nudge that made me sure this was the story I wanted to tell.”

But how to tell the story? For Orlean, who is obsessive about details and research—it took her almost as long to write the book as it did to rebuild the library—she had to figure out her focus.

“That’s exactly what the challenge was–it was a topic that was both broad and deep, with so much history and so many ways I could pursue it,” she says. “I finally decided to treat it as a browse through a library, with stops in different ‘departments’ of the story, such as the history, the fire, the present day, my own library memories. By visualizing the story that way I was able to move through the topic and engage as many aspects of it as I could.”

Her attention to details, both past and present is amazing and intriguing. We learn that Mary Foy, only 18, became the head of LAPL and also, because the fire was set by an arsonist, she delves into previous book burnings such as when in 213 B.C. Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang ordered any history book he didn’t agree with be destroyed. The act, says Orlean, resulted in over four hundred scholars being buried alive.

In keeping with her compulsive exploration, Orlean even tried burning a book herself, just to see what happens and how it is done.

Asked to name her favorite library, Orlean mentions the Bertram Woods branch library in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

“That’s where I fell in love with libraries and became a passionate reader,” she says. “Of course, I’ll always feel a special attachment to the L.A. Public Library, because of the book, and it’s a great library to be in love with.”

Orlean also hopes people appreciate the gifts library give us.

“I want people to think about the nature of memory, both individual memory and common memory,” she says. “Our individual memories are as rich as a library, full of volumes of information and vignettes and fantasies. And our common memory is our libraries, where all the stories of our culture reside. I love reminding people of the value of both.”

Ifyougo:

What: Susan Orlean discusses her new book followed by a book signing.

When: November 13th at 6 pm

Where: Cindy Pritzker Auditorium, Harold Washington Library Center, Chicago Public Library, 400 S. State Street, Chicago IL

Cost: Free

FYI: (312) 747-4300; chipublib.org

 

Swedish Settlements on the South Shore

Northwest Indiana is famously known as a melting pot, a coming together of a vibrant amalgam of people from many countries and different cultures, making the area rich in diversity. But what may be surprising to those of us who grew up in the Region, the first non-English speaking people to move into the Indiana Dunes region and establish settlements were not from Eastern Europe, Germany or Mexico but were instead Swedish immigrants.Beam Street with a cow

“Many came first to Chicago which at one time had more Swedes than any city on earth except Stockholm,” says noted historian Ken Schoon, author of the recently released Swedish Settlements on the South Shore (Donning Company Publishers $30), noting that the legacy of these early Swedish immigrants can still be found throughout the Region even today.

“Swedes established more than a dozen local churches, most of which are still active today,” he says “They built homes out of logs, lumber, and bricks, cleared and farmed the land, worked for the railroads and the brick factories, and established businesses, some of which are still in business today.  Several of the early Swedes served in the Union army in the Civil War.  Nearly all got American citizenship, and some were elected to political office.”

Swedish settlements included neighborhoods in Hobart, Baillytown, Portage Township, Porter, Chesterton, and LaPorte as well as Swedetown in Michigan City. According to Schoon, Miller Beach, where Swedish families like those of my sister-in-law span five decades, was described in 1900 by Lake County historian Timothy Ball as mainly Swedish Lutheran.

Bethel Swedish Lutheran Church, 1907 low res

Other tie-ins with the Region’s Swedish past comprise Chellberg Farm, a historic farmstead, now part of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

“The Chellbergs were one of hundreds of Swedish families that immigrated to the ‘south shore’ area of Northwest Indiana,” says Schoon.  “They were the first non-English speaking immigrants to arrive in numbers large enough and lived close enough together to call the areas settlements.”

Close by to Chellberg Farm and further back in time, Joseph Bailly, a French fur trader who founded a trading post which is also now within the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. According to Schoon, Bailly’s son-in-law Joel Wicker hired recently-arrived Swedes to cut down trees and prepare them for the railroads to be used as rail ties and as fuel for the steam engines.

“Logs were also needed to build and heat their homes and for cooking,” says Schoon.  “When enough trees were cut down, Wicker then sold the land to his Swedish employees who then cleared the land for farming.  Other Swedes found employment as farm laborers, and working for sand and ice mining companies, and as blacksmiths and carpenters.  As the immigrants had more money, many purchased their own farms or started businesses in town.  The first licensed embalmer in Indiana was carpenter John Lundberg, a Chesterton Swede.”

Chellberg Farm (1)
Chellberg Farm Today Photo courtesy of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore 

Many of the churches founded by Swedish immigrants still exist and for almost 70 years or so continued to offer Swedish-language services. Now services are in English and their congregations encompass more than those of Swedish ancestry.

“Bethany Lutheran Church in LaPorte is the oldest Swedish-founded church in Indiana,” says Schoon.  “Until it closed last December, the Evangelical Covenant Church in Portage was the oldest Covenant Church in the state.  The Michigan Avenue Methodist Church in Hobart still uses its original 1889 white frame building and Michigan Avenue used to be called Swede Avenue.”

Other churches are Bethany Lutheran and Grace Baptist  in LaPorte, Zion Lutheran in Michigan City, Bethlehem in Chesterton, Augsburg (Baillytown/Porter), Hope (Crisman/Portage), Bethel (Miller), and Augustana (HobartNordikids circle dance lowres

Though Swedes, whose last names are similar to common  “American names” such as Anderson and Carlson, quickly assimilated into American culture, descendants of Swedes still learn Swedish songs and dances and celebrate the traditions of their forbears says Schoon and we also have assimilated into their traditional ways.

“Even non-Swedes know about Vikings and may eat Swedish meatballs,” he says, noting that in 1952, 100 years after its founding, Chesterton still had more than 23 Swedish-owned businesses. “Smörgåsbord has become an American word—though to Swedes it has slightly different meaning.  Swedes and their descendants helped build the Calumet Area.”

Swedes celebrate July 4th but also honor their own customs as well including Midsummer, the first day of summer and the longest day of the year, a holiday featuring a Maypole, singing, dancing, eating and drinking.

“At least in Sweden,” says Schoon about the drinking part,  “but not at the Chellberg Farm where Midsummer is celebrated.”Vikings in the Hallway (1)

But it isn’t all just history for Swedes and those of Swedish ancestry along the South Shore. The newest lodge in the Scandinavian Vasa Order of America was started in 2006 and sponsors “Nordikids” a very active organization for children and youth that teaches primarily Swedish songs, dances, and customs.  The group performs every year at many venues including Chicago’s “Christmas Around the World.

Ken Schoon, the author, is not descended from Swedes, but he is married to the granddaughter of Swedish immigrants. His earlier works include Calumet Beginnings, Dreams of Duneland, and Shifting Sands, all published by Indiana University Press, and City Trees published by Stackpole Books.

Ifyougo:

Ken Schoon book presentations and book signings.

Sunday, November 11@ 3pm.   Calumet City Historical Society, 760 Wentworth Ave, Calumet City, IL.  708-832-9390; calumetcityhistoricalsociety.org

Wednesday, November 14@ 6:30pm.  Augsburg Church, Augsburg Evangelical Lutheran Church, 100 N Mineral Springs Rd, Porter, IN. 219-926-1658; augsburglutheran.org

Sunday, November 25 @ 10:30.  Westminster Presbyterian Church, 8955 Columbia Ave, Munster, IN. 219-838-3131; wpcmunster.org

Saturday, December 8 @ 9:30.  Brunch including Swedish pancakes and lingonberry syrup  and book signing, Dunes Learning Center, 700 Howe Rd, Porter, IN.  219-395-9555; duneslearningcenter.org

 

 

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