When I set out to become a novelist, I didn’t realize the corners it would make me turn, the things it would teach me: how to weld a ship together, live aboard an aircraft carrier--even butcher a chicken. It’s not so surprising that in the process of writing an historical novel I’d learn a few facts. What I didn’t expect at all was that the same process would challenge and guide me through my own explorations of some of the questions my characters encounter: how (and whether) to tame or feed or foster your most outrageous dreams; how to accept unacceptable loss; how to know when it’s time to let go, and then how to do it.
My new novel, I Gave My Heart to Know This, is the story of three women who work as welders at a shipyard during World War II and the tragedy that binds them, even as it divides them. Years later, a great-granddaughter, caring for the family home, pieces together the friends’ long-buried secrets, and learns the difficulties--and the possibilities--of forgiveness.
I began by poring over shipyard newsletters, photographs, blueprints. I interviewed some old-timers who told me “the way it really was.” I read about everything from naval battles to copper mining to photography to rheumatic fever, explored the engine room of a great ship, stood under the spire of a church. I spent a lot of time in archives. One of the best sources I found was a twenty-page, handwritten account of shipyard work by a woman who was a welder. I borrowed several incidents from her amazing descriptions, including an incident when she was standing in a rowboat welding on the side of a ship and leaned too far forward in her heavy welding garb. Her foreman grabbed her, saving her life; if she’d fallen in the water, she’d have sunk straight to the bottom. (The dangers of the job were many, and, to us in the modern OSHA-regulated world, almost inconceivable.)
Then came my favorite part: translating what I’d gleaned into the experience of fiction. How would it feel to make an overhead weld, sparks raining down, in a space so narrow the smoke chokes you? To fall in love with someone you’d “met” only in a letter? To carry an undeniable sense of patriotic and familial duty, alongside your dream of a different life? And then, to try to understand how your best efforts to save precious things might instead have been complicit in their loss.
Next, I developed a mystery. Time passes; things which are broken and missing long to be fixed and found. And there’s an old house with a seeming incontrovertible will of its own that holds the clues, and maybe the answers--if only someone will look.
Pinned to the wall of the attic of this house is a map of the world, with a red X marking “home.” Early on, the children play a pirate game, searching for buried treasure--and perhaps, it comes to seem, the treasure is their home--problematically. I thought a great deal about that map as I wrote: not only the meanings it has for my characters, but how comforting it would be if only I had such a map to write by. Instead, I learned that journeys are best guided by curiosity and desire and a willingness to be taken far--and that the best discoveries are often the things you didn’t know you were seeking.
“Ellen Baker’s novel is large in the best sense: large in its generous spirit, and in its gallery of vivid, memorable characters. It possesses, as well, an abundance of intelligence, and great shrewdness in its pure story-telling appeal. This novel has a naturalness and finesse that are truly rare.”—Richard Ford
“What a rich offering this is! Ellen Baker gives us characters who are so real, so recognizable, so likable, in spite of (or perhaps because of) their problems and secrets and frustrations and missteps, and she presents them against a story line that is epic in scope. We move from you-are-there scenes of watching young women work in the shipyards during World War II, to the unraveling of long-held mysteries in the present day. I really loved reading this powerful and poignant book, which, though it acknowledges pain, regret and remorse, ultimately is a celebration of life.”—Elizabeth Berg, author of Once Upon a Time, There Was You and Open House
“A great big rich and romantic slice of World War II history that chronicles the lives of three Wisconsin women left behind on the home front to carry on without the men they love. It is a loving tribute to their courage, the sacrifices they made, and their tremendous contributions to the American war effort.”—Fannie Flagg, author of I Still Dream About You
“Give your heart to Ellen Baker’s beautifully made new novel about stern people and the stern toll of urgent words never said. From the hard-bitten bluffs of Lake Superior to the coast of California, from World War II to the present day, the mothers and daughters of two Midwestern families of immigrant stock race against time and history to break down a wall of lies, before it is too late.”—Jacquelyn Mitc...