Arts & Culture
10:00 am
Wed August 7, 2013

Rock Island Lighthouse Sets Scene for Historical Mystery Novel

Lake Effect's Stephanie Lecci interviews author Kathleen Ernst.

The shores beneath a historic lighthouse become a crime scene in a new murder mystery from Kathleen Ernst.

Pottawatomie Lighthouse on Rock Island
Credit United States Coast Guard

With their powerful lights penetrating the night and fog, lighthouses were seen as shining beacons of hope to those on the water. But they also had dark histories, as not even in days of electricity could lighthouses always match coastline fog and rough waters.

Wisconsin novelist Kathleen Ernst taps into the sometimes tragic history of lighthouses – and the foggy, damp ambience in which they stand – in her latest mystery novel, The Light Keeper’s Legacy. It’s the third installment of the Chloe Ellefson mysteries, which follow a curator and interpreter at Old World Wisconsin as she solves mysteries of the past and present.

In the latest story, Chloe travels to Rock Island State Park off the tip of Door County, to serve as a consultant for restoration work in the oldest light station in Wisconsin, Pottawatomie Lighthouse.

Upon her arrival a body surfaces on the beach and she is left wondering if past events might be affecting a present day murder. While she digs through the history of the lighthouse, she begins to learn about the lightkeepers and their wives who assisted in the work.

The latest in the Chloe Ellefson mystery series explores centuries-old debates on conservation, fishing rights and the role of a lighthouse in a community.
Credit Kathleen Ernst

Chloe comes across many compelling stories, but she becomes particularly interested in a woman named Emily Betts, who served as assistant lightkeeper to her husband. Ernst says there was an actual Emily Betts, who despite the strenuous rhythm of the life she lived at the lighthouse, was remembered as a wonderful member of the community. She was often being called "the healer." But Ernst fictionalizes her story by creating a friendship between Emily and a Danish immigrant woman, that evolves alongside Chloe's modern day investigation.

Ernst describes the story as being told in two lines, Chloe’s investigations - which “are braided with historical scenes” - and those that show the friendship of the two women developing.  For the reader, not only is it a mystery story, but Ernst weaves in subjects of century-old debates, including conservation efforts, fishing rights, and whether lands should be open to people.

The fourth book in the Chloe Ellefson series, Heritage of Darkness, will be published in October. Ernst has also written dozens of other historical novels for children and young adults. She lives in Middleton.