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I Gave My Heart to Know This: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, August 2, 2011
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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 Mitchard, author of The Deep End of the Ocean
“I adored this luscious novel. Its authentic details immersed me in the world of women at work during World War II, but the layered story immersed me even deeper in the secrets that get buried in generations of family history. I ached with regret for the characters, wept at their redemption, and savored every surprising turn.”—Katrina Kittle, author of The Kindness of Strangers and The Blessings of the Animals
“Ellen Baker is a brilliant writer, and I Gave My Heart to Know This is a marvelous novel. Moving between past and present, the book weaves Baker’s themes of secrecy, betrayal, and forgiveness into a powerful, unforgettable story. I loved the characters so completely I began to think of them as my own family and friends.”—Bev Marshall, author of Walking Through Shadows
Praise for Ellen Baker’s Keeping the House, winner of the 2008 Great Lakes Book Award for fiction and was one of the Chicago Tribune’s Best Books of the Year
“A great big juicy family saga, a romantic page-turner with genuine characters written with a perfect sense of history, time, and place.”—Fannie Flagg
“An author who knows how to keep us turning the pages.”—Chicago Tribune
“American fiction just doesn’t get any better than this.”—The Buffalo News
“Fascinating . . . a fun and fast read.”—The Stanford Daily
“A crackerjack debut.”—Fredericksburg Free Lance–Star
“A majestic, vibrant multigenerational saga.”—Booklist
Top Customer Reviews
The ladies also know that part of their job on the home front is writing upbeat letters to the boys at the front. Grace agrees to Lena's request by sending encouraging letters to her twin brother Derrick. However, she has an understanding with her high school sweetheart Alex the marine and is attracted to railroad worker Joe, sent home with rheumatic fever.
In Wisconsin, Lena's granddaughter Julia lives on her family farm while grieving a death. She reads letters and looks at photos from WW II while wanting desperately to end the estrangement with her sibling Danny as she probes the tragedy decades ago that destroyed her family.
This is a super historical thriller that focuses on women who took over male jobs while the men fought. These females proved a woman can do a man's job in the workplace and they became mentors for the reform movements of the 1960s. The ensemble cast is solid especially the WWII crew as Ellen Baker provides a deep look at the great leap that led to "you've come a long way baby" with her not so quiet on the Lake Superior front.
Five decades later, Julia, Violet's granddaughter has agreed to house-sit the family farm for her aunt and uncle while they are away on an extended trip. As she is cleaning out a room for herself in the attic she discovers old letters and a studio portrait of a glamorous blonde woman; the back of the picture was inscribed, "Love Grace". Julia doesn't know of any family member named Grace, but her mother never spoke much about the family.
The story weaves the past and present; we join Violet, Grace and Lena in the waning days of WWII, while in 1999 Julia unravels the mystery and discovers the secrets that nearly destroyed her family. When done well, this is one of my favorite techniques and Ms. Baker's beautiful writing has us moving between the generations seamlessly.
Much of the story takes place in the past focusing on the three women. They are well-developed, interesting characters in a unique period in history. It was a pleasure to read about strong, competent women confronting difficult situations. Towards the end of the war the manufacturing industry, out of necessity, began hiring women to do jobs typically held by men. Working as a welder was dangerous and the women often needed to prove themselves capable to the male workers and supervisors.
I found this a very enjoyable novel. It is a multi-layered, emotional story with enough plot twists to keep the pages turning and a satisfying ending where all the pieces come together.
This book started off pretty well, I enjoy stories set during the war and especially when they focus on the women on the home front. Unfortunately this book was full of so much foreshadowing and far too many coincidences to sustain believability. There was just too much going on, too many elements. Mysterious pictures, possible murder, a missing pilot, unfinished letters, long lost lovers, the list goes on and on. Instead of being a book focusing on the three women it became a soap opera with behaviors that defied logic.
The only reason it gets 3 stars is because until it slid into the odd mystery at the core of the story it was an intriguing read that I was enjoying; it just went over the top with the completely inexplicable behavior of some people, and the almost perfect resolution of the mystery which caused me to roll my eyes more than once.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
This multi-generational book has it all, history , mystery and the romance of life. Hard to put down reliving the circle of life.Published 22 days ago by Elkie555
An exciting well written story about WWII, about love and loss and the prices we pay for the choices we make in life. How some of us cannot or will not let go of the past. Read morePublished 2 months ago by Amazon Customer
Tedious. Confusing. Too many indistinguishable characters. Interesting beginning about women as riveters during WWII, but falls apart thereafter.Published 8 months ago by Jersey Girl
Loved this story. I read it in one day. This is a story about a teen mother's love for her child & how it affects her life. Read morePublished 13 months ago by Amazon Customer
Entertaining with some beautiful thoughts. Held one's interest til the end when it became a bit thick. Glad I read it! Good characters.Published 15 months ago by Kindle Customer
Beautiful story of love, fear, hope, loss and forgiveness. The fact that sadness and pain can carry across generations even without knowing the causes. Read morePublished 16 months ago by Jojo4