The first adult novel by Lakeville children’s author Loretta Ellsworth takes on a big task: depicting 1940s wartime life in the Heartland, captured largely through the magical escape that was the Surf Ballroom — the famous dance hall in Clear Lake, Iowa, where countless big bands entertained America during and after World War II. It is also where Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the “Big Bopper” performed their last show before their fateful plane crash in 1959 — “the day the music died.”
The story runs on two timelines: 1944, and six decades later to nearly present day. In 1944, Lorraine Kindred is an Iowa farm girl with hopes of going to college and a wistful eye for Scotty, the most popular boy in town. She and Scotty begin a romance, but the war suddenly thrusts an unexpected gift into Lorraine’s life: a young, intriguing German POW named Jens, who is working on her family’s farm as part of a crew from the nearby prison camp.
Jens is no Nazi. He was conscripted into the German army over threats to his family, and as an unwilling soldier he was immediately captured by the Allies and sent off to prison in America.
Lorraine is fascinated by this blue-eyed, boyish soul who asks her to teach him English. She knows it’s not the patriotic thing to do: To the war-scarred townsfolk, many of whom have lost a father, brother or son abroad, she’s helping the enemy. And she doesn’t want to cheat on Scotty. But she can’t get Jens out of her mind, and they cultivate a forbidden relationship during their lessons.
Then, just as the war brought them together, the end of the war wrenches them apart. Jens is shipped back to Germany with the other POWs, but not before the young couple vow to be reunited.
We meet the older Lorraine, widowed and now in her 80s, just as she’s entering the present-day Surf Ballroom, rebuilt on a new spot after an unexplained fire burned the original club to the ground. She hasn’t been to the place in decades — because she was there the night of the Surf fire and harbors a deep secret. As she wanders through the new club, she starts to see long-dead people from her 1940s past. They advise her to tell her long-buried secret.
Not much is known about the fire that destroyed the original Surf Ballroom in 1947; the cause has never been determined. But it has been imagined, by this author in this fanciful fiction, as the outcome of the passions of first love and the ugly scars of war.
We learn in Ellsworth’s notes that her own parents met at the original Surf Ballroom and had a full and lovely life together, and that she grew up in the streets and fields and farms that she so aptly brings to life. Surely this was a deeply meaningful and personal story to write.
Fans of romance and historical fiction alike will enjoy Ellsworth’s enhanced vision of mid-America in the 1940s and what really brought the Surf Ballroom crashing down. For anyone with ties to this brief moment in history, this dance is for you.
Ginny Greene is a Star Tribune copy editor.
Stars Over Clear Lake
By: Loretta Ellsworth.
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books, 312 pages, $25.99.
Events: 7 p.m. May 11, SubText Books, 6 W. 5th St., St. Paul; 4 p.m. June 11, Surf Ballroom, Clear Lake, Iowa; 7 p.m. June 15, Literature Lovers' Night Out, Excelsior Bay Books, 36 Water St., Excelsior.