I Gave My Heart To Know This by Ellen Baker


Behind the Book

The story behind I Gave My Heart to Know This…

When I moved to the Lake Superior port city of Superior, Wisconsin, in 2002, after having lived most of my life in landlocked sections of the upper Midwest, I found myself captivated by the landscape of the harbor, the massive docks and ships that continue their work amid ghostly remnants of a more prosperous past.  Even as thousand-foot “lakers” and slightly smaller “salties” (oceangoing vessels) bring and pick up cargoes from the ore, coal, grain, and other docks in Superior and her neighboring city of Duluth, Minnesota, around the rusted old grain elevators, warehouses, and docks hovers a sense of opportunities lost, of dust and decay, loneliness and desolation.   
            While working at the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center in Superior in 2002-03, I researched an exhibit about the Duluth/Superior homefront, and learned that seven local shipyards had employed more than 14,000 people and built more than 200 vessels.  In Superior alone, more than 7,000 people had been employed at three shipyards; today, the entire population of the city is around 28,000.   Having long been interested in ideas about gender and work and war, I was fascinated by images in shipyard newsletters of groups of women posed in their welding helmets and coveralls.  So when it came time, in 2006, to choose a setting for my next novel, I thought of these women.
            Meanwhile, other landscapes had captured my fascination.  First, a small, crumbling, abandoned farmhouse along Highway 2 in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, which I had occasion to pass by several times over the course of a few years.  As I always seem to do when I see an abandoned house, I wondered what had happened there and why the house had been left alone to decay.  (There are many abandoned houses in the U.P., but this one struck me particularly – I’m not sure just why.)
            Then, maybe in the summer of 2005, I visited the former mining town of Calumet, Michigan, in a remote section of the U.P. called the Keeweenaw Peninsula.  I was astonished by the contradictions and the mysteries of the landscape there: the reaching spires of twenty-some beautiful churches, the century-old sturdy brick buildings of the downtown, the dilapidated identical frame houses that line the residential neighborhoods – and the empty, empty streets.  I learned that the city, planned and operated by the Calumet & Hecla Mining corporation, had been called Red Jacket, and it had once housed 45,000 people, miners and their families, most of them immigrants from such far-flung places as Finland, Italy, and Croatia.  Now home to only about 8,000, Calumet gives the impression of a living ghost town. 
            Each of these mysterious landscapes seemed to call to me.  But how to combine the harbor and shipyards of Superior, the abandoned house in Michigan, and the lost city of Calumet, into one novel?  (I was certain they all needed to be linked.)  
            The process of finding my way to the story turned out to be nearly as mysterious as the landscapes that had inspired me.  Some details came to me early.  I knew that my main character would be a woman named Grace who worked as a welder at the shipyard, and that she would be desperate to get out of town.  I imagined that a train would have brought supplies into the yard daily, and I wanted that train to come to symbolize, in Grace’s mind, her escape.  I wanted her to fall in love with a man who worked on that train – and I was happy to find out through research that the same railroad handled all the deliveries to the shipyard, so my imagined scenario was possible. 
            I had the idea that there would be some kind of fight in 1945 over ownership of the farmhouse (which I initially situated in Michigan, like the one that had inspired me), as well as rumors of a murder, which would become legend in the small town where it was located.
            And I knew that Jago Maki, the patriarch of the farm family, would have grown up in Calumet, Michigan.  I didn’t know about the Italian Hall disaster of 1913 until I’d already decided he would have grown up there.  It was fortuitous for me that this real event coincided with Jago’s coming of age; the unsolved nature of this tragedy also fits the novel in a way I couldn’t have planned.  I did know that Jago would have a first love who disappeared, and that this disappearance would have ripple effects throughout his life.  I have always been interested in the lingering effects of loss.
            I also knew that Jago and Violet’s children, Derrick and Lena, would be twins, and that, while Lena worked at the shipyard, Derrick would be away in the Navy.  I didn’t plan for Derrick to become a focal point of the story, but I realized as I was writing that a family member couldn’t be so absent as to be invisible.  The more I let him in, the more he took over – even though we never actually see him, except in flashbacks or memory or imagination, he’s always there.
            As the story evolved over several rewritings, the various story lines seemed to come together around the theme of disappearance, of people going away unexpectedly and forever – just as the landscapes that had initially inspired the story had seemed in my mind to suggest.

Arrange a book club visit

Join Ellen's Mailing List

Upcoming events and recent news