Kathleen Ernst has worked as a historical curator and is the successful author of more than 25 books. I am most familiar with her historical fiction and historical mysteries written for children, some of them revolving around American Girl characters. When I saw a copy of The Light Keeper's Legacy at our local library, I felt compelled to put this on the top of my reading pile. First, the mystery revolves around Rock Island at the tip of Door County. I am drawn to books with Wisconsin settings, especially if it is set somewhere that I've visited or know well. Second, I recognized Kathleen Ernst's name and wanted to see how she had transitioned into writing for older audiences.
The Light Keeper's Legacy is the third book in a series which features Chloe Ellefson, a historian at Old World Wisconsin in the mid-1980s. This simple placement in the 1980s places all the mysteries pre-cell phone and pre-instant data, thus making the sleuthing of each mystery more methodical and slow. There is time for Chloe to think things through, and basically, time for things to happen. In this tale, Chloe has been asked to come to the lighthouse on Rock Island as a consultant. A group has decided to restore the lighthouse and they want help deciding what time period should be depicted in the historical displays.
Rock Island has a small state park on one side, but basically the entire island can only be reached by ferry or by personal boat. Chloe arrives to find herself in very primitive conditions - no running water, electricity, or phone service. Luckily she has the essentials in her backpack and looks forward to some time alone. That is, until she finds a woman's body entangled in a fishing net, washed ashore. That first night she dreams or hears voice of children singing. Somehow she is sure they are the children of Emily, a former asst lightkeeper on the island. As the week progresses, Chloe learns more about the present day tensions between the commercial fishing industry, the DNR, and environmentalists, but she is also drawn into the one hundred year old mysteries of the former fishing village on the island. Readers sense that somehow the two stories will merge, but will remain unclear why or how through most of the book.
Ernst's tale definitely weaves in authentic local color, both in the 1980s setting and the 1880s setting. From the carved needle for weaving the nets to the library box to the white fish, the little details added a realism that is clearly Door County. The 1980 story alternated with the 1880 story, a common technique in books with two stories set in two time periods, but because each chapter was quite short and often covered just a few minutes in "real time," I felt a choppiness and I sometimes lost interest. I knew I wanted to finish the book, and I am glad that I did, but I did not feel that the compulsion to finish because the mysteries were pulling me to the end. I've read other reviews and others felt differently, so I am still recommending this book, especially if you know and enjoy Wisconsin history. I think I will give another one of her books a chance soon. I would also recommend Kathleen's website and blog. I know I want to dig around there and learn a little more about the connections between her fiction writing and Wisconsin's wonderful museums.