The Great American Read: Kathleen Ernst shares her picks

September 18, 2018 Susannah Brooks Leave a Comment

The Great American Read is back, with weekly explorations each Tuesday night of why America’s best-loved books and characters make such lasting impressions in our lives.

Kathleen Ernst headshot, by Geri GerroldWe’ve enjoyed hearing about Wisconsin authors’ own picks, both on and off TGAR‘s list. Next in our series is Kathleen Ernst, a multitalented author who describes her work as “writing at the intersection of people, places and the past.”

If you enjoy history, mystery or any combination thereof, read on for some of Ernst’s inspiring picks!

Kathleen Ernst poses by an old cabin“I’ve worn many bonnets over the years,” says Kathleen Ernst, and she’s not kidding!

Award-winning and bestselling author, educator, and social historian Kathleen Ernst has published over thirty novels and two nonfiction books. She also blogs at Sites and Stories, exploring the stories behind historic places (many right here in Wisconsin!).

Incidentally, she also spent a decade scripting and producing instructional television series for the Wisconsin Educational Communications Board/Wisconsin Public Television, winning an Emmy for the series Cultural Horizons!

Her books for young readers include the Caroline Abbott series for American Girl, set in 1812.  Honors for her children’s mysteries include Edgar and Agatha Award nominations. For her work, she recently received the 2018 Sterling North Legacy Award for Excellence in Children’s Literature.

Cover for The Lacemaker's Secret features bobbins and intricate Belgian laceErnst worked as an Interpreter and Curator of Interpretation and Collections at Old World Wisconsin, and her time at the historic site served as inspiration for the Chloe Ellefson mysteries. Her ninth book in the series, The Lacemaker’s Secret, is set in Green Bay and southern Door County; it will be published on Oct. 8.

Currently touring in support of The Lacemaker’s Secret, Ernst will be reading at Madison’s Mystery to Me on Thursday, Oct. 8.

What is your favorite of the books on the TGAR list? Why?

I’m often asked to name my favorite book of those I’ve written, and my answer is this:  Whichever book I’m working on at the moment, because that’s the world I’m living in.  Reading provides similar experiences.  Every good book I read presents a new world to explore, new characters to inhabit.

Cover of Anne of Green Gables features a red-headed girl smiling in front of a rural houseAnne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomery, is a wonderful example -a book that transported me to another time and place, with a marvelously compelling protagonist both spirited enough to admire and vulnerable enough to make me care.

Book covers for And Then There Were None and RebeccaIn addition to being good reads, I enjoyed some of my favorite adult books on the list – And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier – because they helped inspire my love of mystery and suspense. The best way to learn how to write is to study the masters.

Covers for The Color Purple - a photo of a black woman with purple flower petals around it - and The Joy Luck Club - a red cover with a gold filigree designSome of my other favorites, such as The Color Purple and The Joy Luck Club, had a lingering impact in large part because they provided a peek at unfamiliar cultures and experiences. What could be more powerful?

What’s a novel that ISN’T on this list that you think everyone should read, and why?

I wrestled unsuccessfully with this question.  I love different books for different reasons: an intricate plot, an unforgettable character, a strong sense of place, a fresh and lovely command of language.

Also, no single book will appeal to everyone, which is one of the magical things about stories.  Anyone who thinks they don’t like to read just hasn’t found the right book yet.

On a personal note, which novel (on or off this list) has had the biggest impact on your life?

Cover of Gone with the Wind features a southern plantation against a sunsetI read Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind when I was in my early teens, and I was captivated.  I already knew I wanted to be a writer, and read voraciously, but GWTW took me to a new place.  The sweeping scope, the drama, the romance, the history -this was what I wanted to do.  I’ve evolved as a reader, and developed my own style as a writer, but I’ll never forget the experience of disappearing into that novel.

Cover of The Monkey Wrench Gang shows a barren but beautiful Southwestern landscape

Other novels that have particularly lingered in my mind are those that explore challenging topics.

The Monkey Wrench Gang, by Edward Abbey, prompted me to consider what I would, and would not, do to support a cause I believed in passionately.

Cover of The Emigrants shows a line drawing of a rural hillsideAnother favorite I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is The Emigrants, by Vilhelm Moberg.  It follows a Swedish family on their difficult journey to America in 1850, and presents lots of parallels to contemporary immigration stories in the news.


Upcoming episodes of The Great American Read discuss how beloved themes relate to our lives.

Sept. 18Who Am I?
Sept. 25Heroes
Oct. 2Villains & Monsters
Oct. 9What We Do For Love
Oct. 16 – Other Worlds
Oct. 23 – Grand Finale

Here are more great ways to discover new and old favorites:

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