By: Loretta Ellsworth
Published: May 2, 2017
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Most of the WWII stories I read are set in Europe with a few set in the US, but usually on the coast. What grabbed my attention about this particular WWII novel was that it was set in Iowa. Yes, my home state and far away from those fighting for our country.
In Ellsworth's first adult fiction novel, she uses the magical and popular setting of the Surf Ballroom, the last venue of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and "The Big Bopper" before their plane crashed. Her setting is during the prime WWII years when many families in Iowa were sending their sons off to fight and many never seeing them again.
Lorraine is a teenager who watches her brother go off to war. Pete was her mom's favorite and life at home wasn't the same once he left. Instead, Lorraine spent her time on the farm with her father and the POWs that were from the camp in nearby Algona. They came to help on the farm since her brother was off to war. As you can imagine, her mom, as well as many others in the community, did not appreciate having "the enemy" on their land and in their communities. As Lorraine grows up, she struggles with following her heart or following what people expect her to do. She has an amazing voice and spends many nights dancing and wishing about singing at the Surf. One night, her dream comes true and she sings for Jimmy Dorsey at the Surf Ballroom. What happens later that evening will change everyone's lives forever.
Ellsworth jumps between 2007 and the 1940's in telling Lorraine's story both as a teenager and now as an elderly woman. She also has a strained relationship with her daughter, much like her relationship with her own mother. When the secret she has kept her whole life starts to eat away at her, she begins to relive that fateful night and wonders if her daughter will ever be able to understand.
As an Iowan, I am ashamed to admit that I have never been to the Surf Ballroom or heard about the POW camps before this book. Ellsworth shares much detail and history to inform the reader and bring the ballroom to life on the pages. The emotions and passions of the characters seeped off the pages with honesty. The experiences of life during the 1940's take you back to a simpler, but unsure time in our history and the present day story reminds us of our own regrets of the past.
My Interview with Loretta Ellsworth
Loretta Ellsworth grew up in Mason City and attended many events at the famous Surf Ballroom while growing up. Since her parents met there, it always held a bit of magic and romance for her. As she began dreaming about being a writer, she knew she would always want to write a story that was set at the Surf Ballroom. When she remembered her father pointing out the POW Camp Museum in Algona, it gave her the idea to merge the two stories into a book. That dream has come true and her first adult novel, STARS OVER CLEAR LAKE, is available now.
Ellsworth has enjoyed writing since childhood but didn’t know anyone who was an actual writer so she didn’t believe it was something she could actually do for a career. She has always loved to read, stating, “We had a wonderful library in Mason City and I went there all the time. We even had a bookmobile in the summer, which was a bus full of books that would go from neighborhood to neighborhood. You climbed in and got books and two weeks later, it would come back.” After attending UNI, majoring in Spanish and Business and then getting her teaching degree later at ISU, she focused on teaching Spanish at the middle school and high school levels. It wasn’t until she was older that she decided writing could be a career option for her. While living in the Minneapolis area, she took some writing classes at the Loft Literary Center and had some magazine articles published. That gave her the motivation she needed to keep writing. She began writing books and taking more classes all while still teaching Spanish. After her first two Young Adult books were published she began writing full-time and even got her MSA in writing for children from Hamline University.
Ellsworth is the author of four young adult books each with a different theme. “My first book is set during the 1870’s in SE Minnesota about a shrouding woman. My second book is about a girl who loves the book TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and travels to meet Harper Lee. The third and fourth books are more contemporary fiction for teens and about a teen who has a heart transplant and a person who has a perfect memory.” Even though her young adult books are about diverse topics, historical fiction is her favorite.
While researching for her newest book, she realized that there were two Surf Ballrooms, the first having burned down, without the community ever finding out the cause. That gave her another idea to add that piece of history into her story. “I decided to create my own cause of the fire and bring some mystery to the story”, stated Ellsworth. Recently, Ellsworth went to the Surf Ballroom, she met a man that she had previously interviewed over the phone for her book. His father had been a POW and had immigrated to Mason City. “It was pretty neat to meet him in person,” she said.
Ellsworth remembers going to the Surf Ballroom in the 1970’s and thinking that it was pretty run down. They even talked about tearing it down at one point because it was old and dilapidated. After a family decided to buy the Surf Ballroom and renovate it to look the same as it did in the 1940’s, it really brought the business back. “After Don McLean’s song ‘American Pie’ came out it brought some notoriety back to the Surf Ballroom and then their annual Winter Dance Party also kept fans coming back.” Ellsworth stated, “There used to be 2,600 ballrooms in the United States and now there are less than 100 left. The Surf Ballroom still has concerts and events almost every week including a Big Band Series on Sundays in the summer.”
Ellsworth also believes that many people didn’t know that Iowa and every other state except Vermont and Nevada were homes for POW camps during WWII. “Not many people were aware of them. They put them in small communities near the railroad so they wouldn’t attract as much attention and there was nowhere for them to go if they escaped,” explains Ellsworth. Even though life was difficult in the camps, many Iowans were eager to show that Americans weren’t as bad as the Germans made them out to be. “Many of these families had their sons fighting and dying overseas and it affected how some of them felt towards the POWs in their communities,” stated Ellsworth.
Ellsworth hopes that readers enjoy her historical love story. It has a lot of themes relating to our current immigration issues. Its main character starts the story as a teenager and grows up throughout the story. She could see older teens as well as adults appreciating the struggles and regrets faced by the characters. She even includes a bit of magic into the story because, she states, “The Surf is a magical place and for me, it was easy to incorporate a bit of the ability to speak to someone from their past, and have it be believable at the Surf.”
Writing and reading are daily activities for Ellsworth as well as being active in her local writing community and Friends of the Library organization. Her children and grandchildren live on opposite sides of the country, but she looks forward to visits with them throughout the year. She loves reading historical fiction and is currently working on a new adult historical fiction novel set during the 1940’s in the Midwest. She is also in the revision stages of a new young adult novel.
To hear more about Loretta Ellsworth and her book, STARS OVER CLEAR LAKE, be sure to check out her website, HERE.
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