My lucky star

I hate author blogs – including mine – when they turn into little bulletin boards, full of brag-brag-bragging about their books.

So I’m going to brag about my book.

Finders Keepers got a starred review from “Booklist.” If you don’t follow publishing, you’re probably not over the moon about this news. “Only one star?” Someone asked me in an apologetic voice. “On a scale of one to what?”

No, it’s not like that. There’s no scale. There are bad book reviews, so-so reviews, good reviews and great reviews. Then there’s a star. Getting a star is like getting an A+++. The difference between a good review and a star is like the difference between a pat on the back and an extra-long hug with flowers and chocolate.

Here’s what “Booklist” has to say:

The only time 10-year-old Christa feels she belongs is when she is at her family’s cabin in Wisconsin. But to her dismay, this will be their last summer on Whitefish Lake, because her father has lost his job and they cannot afford to keep the cabin. Next door, a boy named Alex has just moved in, and the two team up to do some sleuthing and treasure hunting. Rumor has it that Al Capone once hid a suitcase of cash in the area, and if they can find it Christa’s family might be able to hang on to their cabin. Tougas, known best for her historic nonfiction (Little Rock Girl 1957, 2011), has crafted a charming story of family history and personal connections (both lost and found) that is reminiscent of Blue Balliett and the Penderwicks’ adventures. Christa is a delightful protagonist—spunky, witty, and self-confident, in spite of her lack of social graces—and her companionship with Alex is well drawn. More thoughtful than most mysteries, this novel addresses serious issues (financial challenges and strained family relationships, in particular) without bogging down the narrative, and its resolution is both rewarding and poignant. Christa and Alex prove a winning duo, whose quest for Capone’s lost loot will keep readers glued to the page.

And now I’m done–but not without a picture of Finders Keepers.

FindersKeepers_Cover1

Laura Ingalls: The Missing Year

After touring Rocky Ridge in Missouri, where Laura and Almanzo Wilder lived for 40-plus years, we road tripped to Burr Oak, Iowa. This little town is never mentioned in the Little House series even though the Ingalls lived there for a year. Laura was about 10 years old.

If you watched the TV show, Iowa is where the Ingalls family adopted Albert, the fictional boy who burned down the school for the blind (killing Mary’s baby) and developed a morphine addiction. The Ingalls’ real lives were dramatic but not dramatic enough for actor/producer Michael Landon. He wanted a soap opera, and Laura’s books became Days of Our Lives on the Prairie.

Anyway, I speculate Laura left Iowa out of the books because her stories are about optimism and perseverance. Iowa was anything but optimism and perseverance. They moved there out of desperation. Grasshoppers had destroyed a promising crop in Minnesota, and Pa was offered a job helping run a hotel in Iowa. He had few options. Ma loved their home in Walnut Grove, but they couldn’t stay. On the way to Iowa, the Ingalls’ infant son died. The family rolled into town on a wagon filled with loss.

Their experience in Iowa was a nightmare. Money didn’t work out the way Pa planned. (It never did with that man!) Ma cooked for more than 20 people three meals a day. Then she had to do all the dishes without the aid of a dishwasher or even lavender-scented Dawn. Laura had to empty chamber pots. (Did Mary ever help with anything?!) The family of five lived together in one tiny room. The hotel drew mostly male travelers, and there was drinking. And card playing. And swearing. Eventually the saloon next door burned to the ground, and Pa was happy to see it go.

Pa moved the family out of the hotel because it was too rough for kids. They lived above a grocery store and then in a small rented house where Grace was born. Once again, Pa couldn’t pay the bills. The landlord threatened to take Pa’s horses. After that threat, Pa packed up his family in the middle of night (literally), and they scrambled out of town.

It’s hard to picture Michael Landon doing something like that, right?

Amazingly, the original Masters Hotel in Burr Oak still stands. So much in the Laura world has been recreated – the little cabins in Pepin and Kansas, the shanty outside of De Smet, the house in Walnut Grove – that this hotel is truly a treasure. It smells and creaks just like an old building should. If you close your eyes, you can picture Ma kneading bread dough and Laura sweeping while Mary drinks lemonade and drunk travelers demanding more salt pork.

Unlike the Rocky Ridge Farm, you can take photos. So I did:

I knew a 1800s hotel would be small, but the Masters Hotel is really, really small. It's about the size of a house.

I knew a 1800s hotel would be small, but the Masters Hotel is really, really small. It’s about the size of a house.

Don't complain about your uncomfortable hotel bed until you've slept on a straw mattress propped up by rope. Also, your 25 cents didn't buy you a room at the Masters Hotel; it bought you a space to sleep. You might have to share a small bed with two strangers, and chances are they didn't spring for the cost of a bath, which was extra.

Don’t complain about your uncomfortable hotel bed until you’ve slept on a straw mattress propped up by rope. Also, your 25 cents didn’t buy you a room at the Masters Hotel; it bought you a space to sleep. You might have to share a small bed with two strangers, and chances are they didn’t spring for the cost of a bath, which was extra.

An example of the famous twisted hay that fueled the Ingalls' stove during the long winter. Laura and Pa twisted hay day and night to keep the fire burning while Mary, I guess, was drinking cocoa.

An example of the famous twisted hay that fueled the Ingalls’ stove during the long winter. Laura and Pa twisted hay day and night to keep the fire burning while Mary, I guess, was drinking cocoa.

Laura emptied a lot of these while the family ran the hotel. Tell your kids that when they complain about bringing their cereal bowls to the sink.

Laura emptied a lot of these while the family ran the hotel. Tell your kids that when they complain about bringing their cereal bowls to the sink.

Ma's hanky - her REAL hanky, not a replica. If this excites you as much as it excites me, then you're a geek, too. It's pretty fancy as far as nose-blowing devices go, so maybe this was a Sunday hanky.

Ma’s hanky – her REAL hanky, not a replica. If this excites you as much as it excites me, then you’re a geek, too. It’s pretty fancy as far as nose-blowing devices go, so maybe this was a Sunday hanky.

Here's what Ma did every single day without the help of a bread maker or microwave or even a nonstick pan.

Here’s what Ma did every single day without the help of a bread maker or microwave or even a nonstick pan.

Finally, the requisite selfie.

Finally, the requisite selfie.

Shelley’s Laura Ingalls mini-tour

My Laura Ingalls project (release date fall 2017) is taking me to her homesites, including last week’s visits to Missouri and Iowa. Look for lots of random Laura posts from me.

First I went to Rocky Ridge Farm in Mansfield, Missouri, where she spent most of her adult life. The farm isn’t included in the Little House series, which ends with the devastating first four years of the Wilders’ marriage. But Rocky Ridge is the museum with all the goodies: Pa’s fiddle, her friends’ yellowed calling cards, the little teapot jewelry box she got for Christmas in Walnut Grove, the first sampler she ever sewed, and much, much, much, much more.

In addition to the museum, you can tour the farmhouse Laura and Almanzo built one room at a time, plus the “Rock House,” which daughter Rose built for her parents so they’d have an easy-to-maintain retirement home. They moved into the cottage while Rose took over the farmhouse. As soon as Rose moved east, however, they moved right back into the farmhouse.

There’s a no-photo policy inside any of the buildings, including the gift shop. That’s right: You can’t take photos of their t-shirts and mugs. All I have are photos outside, including these:

This is the bank in Mansfield where Laura and Almanzo secured a loan to buy the farm. We ate lunch at a Mexican restaurant across the street, which was the only restaurant in the tiny town square.

This is the bank in Mansfield where Laura and Almanzo secured a loan to buy the farm. We ate lunch at a Mexican restaurant across the street, which was the only restaurant in the tiny town square.

Here's the outside of the Rocky Ridge Farmhouse. It hasn't been changed since Laura's death. Almanzo's stash of medications from the late 1940s still sit on the table next to his bed. There's a jar of Vicks Vapor Rub.

Here’s the outside of the Rocky Ridge Farmhouse. It hasn’t been changed since Laura’s death. Almanzo’s stash of medications from the late 1940s still sit on the table next to his bed. There’s a jar of Vicks Vapor Rub stored with the glass prescription bottles.

I was joined by my significant other, who graciously indulged my Laura time and listened to me talk about the books for hours on end. We're standing in front of the Rock House that Rose built. She ordered the plans from a Sears catalogue.

I was joined by my significant other, who graciously indulged my Laura time and listened to me talk about the books for hours on end. We’re standing in front of the Rock House that Rose built. She ordered the plans from a Sears catalogue.

This is a little disgusting: Almanzo, like many farmers, built a small shed by the spring. Because the water was cold, it kept the spring house, as it was called, cool enough to store milk and butter. Sorry, but I need assurance that my dairy products are stored at a consistent temperature of 35 degrees.

This is a little disgusting: Almanzo, like many farmers, built a small shed by the spring. Because the water was cold, it kept the spring house, as it was called, cool enough to store milk and butter. Sorry, but I need assurance that my dairy products are stored at a consistent temperature of 35 degrees.

St. Peter Reads and Michael Perry

I suppose it’s bad marketing strategy to plug someone else at an event in which you’re a presence, but here goes:

Author Michael Perry is the keynote at St. Peter Reads this Saturday (May 16 in St. Peter, Minn.), and you shouldn’t miss him. He’s as funny in person and he is on paper. Check out his web site here. After he speaks, there’s a brunch in which authors circulate among the tables. I’m among that group of authors.

(For more information and tickets for St. Peter Reads, go here.)

The others include:

Rachael Hanel. Full disclosure: She’s been a friend for more than 20 years. I also happen to adore her writing. Her memoir, We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down, will knock your socks off. Her web site is here. She’s been critiquing my writing in one way or another since the mid-1990s when we worked together at the Free Press in Mankato. As a copyeditor, she once spared me the embarrassment of misspelling my own name.

Allen Eskens. I didn’t know Allen when I lived in Mankato. He’s an attorney there. I met him at a Twin Cities book conference and fell in love with his debut mystery novel The Life We Bury. Check him out here.

Geoff Herbach. Geoff was a new professor when I started (but never finished – sigh) the MFA program at Minnesota State University, Mankato. He’s a YA rock star and an incredibly nice guy. Learn more about him here.

Other authors include Jan Holte, Roger McKnight, Charles Quimby, Dale Redlin, James Rogers, Curt Stolee, Sarah Stonich, and Laurie Wetzel.

Maybe we’ll see you there!

The book club

My neighborhood has its own Facebook group, which is super handy when you’re looking for a sitter or recommendations for a plumber. Recently someone posted this question: Who’s up for a neighborhood book club?

Me me me! I gave it a big neighborly thumbs up.

Then came the next question: What would you like to read?

Here’s my novelist anxiety: internal pressure to suggest Very Important Books. Faust. Anna Karenina. Wuthering Heights. You are what you eat, and you are what you read. Will eyebrows raise if I admit I’d rather read The Girl on the Train?

And then there’s the book club itself. What if I miss allegories or metaphors? I surely can’t say something like, “I liked that chapter because it was good.” After two glasses of wine, anything goes. It’s possible I might use the word “goodly.” Who knows?

Honestly, most of my neighbors probably don’t even know I write books. There’s no sign in the yard. I haven’t handed out Graham Cracker Plot bookmarks. I’m not that neighbor who hangs out in my yard, chatting with the dog-walkers. I like my air-con.

So, the book club. I’ll just try to enjoy it.

By the way, here’s my wish list of summer reads (adult-style). Notice I’m putting it here, on my blog, and not on the book club page. Baby steps.

The Girl on the Train
Orphan Train

The Goldfinch
We Were Liars
Wild

The most recent The Best American Nonrequired Reading

Here and there

Friends!

Two appearances I want to tell you about:

I’m going to be at the Spring Valley Library Book Club on May 2. We’re reading The Graham Cracker Plot. If you want to participate, contact the Spring Valley (Wisconsin) library at 715-778-4590.

I’m part of the Author Brunch at the annual St. Peter Reads event in St. Peter, Minn. There will be a group of about a dozen authors circulating among the brunch tables, including Rachael Hanel, Allen Eskens, Geoff Herbach, Jan Holte, Roger McKnight, Charlie Quimby, Dale Redlin, Jim Rogers, Curt Stolee, Sarah Stonich, and Laurie Wetzel. The event features author Michael Perry, who’s one of the funniest writers I’ve ever read. St. Peter Reads is Saturday, May 16. Learn more at the event’s Facebook page.

Happy read and happy spring!