Old family farmsteads have always held a special fascination for Minnesota author Ellen Baker. Having delivered a flawed but fanciful first novel, "Keeping the House," in 2007, Baker returns this month with a richly satisfying sophomore effort steeped in heartbreak and history, set on a simple farm 30 miles outside Superior, Wis.
Both sweeping in scope and sure to set readers' imaginations to flight, "I Gave My Heart to Know This" is a multigenerational saga focused on Grace, a young woman working as Rosie the Riveter in a shipyard by day, dreaming of Hollywood dressmaking by night. Called home from art school in 1944 to help care for her ailing father, Grace is soon swept into the war effort, transforming her skill with fabric into a flair for welding metal that earns her the name "hot shot" among her burly colleagues.
The author's research into the life of the World War II "girl welders" of Lake Superior big rigs proves flawless, as Grace is called upon for increasingly difficult jobs.
"Down to her pants and long underwear, plus her two long underwear tops, her welding helmet, and two pairs of wool socks, she crawled into the hold and had soon inched her way on her elbows almost to the end of the white steel tube, holding [a] flashlight in one hand, towing her equipment and electrical cords with the other, sure that at any moment her hips were going to get stuck. The light reflected like ghosts haunting the tiny passageway. The smell of paint was almost a solid thing."
If Baker's work suffered from overpopulated pages in the past, she ran the risk of carrying that flaw forward in "I Gave My Heart to Know This." Grace juggles three beaus -- Alex, her high school sweetheart; Derrick, twin brother of her best friend, Lena, and Bob, an enigmatic older man whose magnetic eyes hold the promise of danger. Even as Grace and Lena giggle over her suitors' letters home from far-flung fields of battle, readers sense things are about to take a turn toward the serious when Grace is invited into the troubled family farmhouse of Lena and her bickering parents, prim Violet and Jago, a hard-drinking Finn with a spotty past. What a relief to find that here, in her second time out, Baker has learned to manage all of her characters seamlessly.
Baker's natural ear for the parlance of the era, site-specific and wholly believable, is but one element that makes her second novel such a cozy delight. Between Grace and Lena -- and all the characters in between -- this talented author has created familiar-seeming people whom readers will care about.
It's exciting to see "home folks" make good. What an unalloyed pleasure it is to see that Ellen Baker's writing has firmly found its footing.
Andrea Hoag is a book critic in Lawrence, Kan.