“Stars Over Clear Lake” by Loretta Ellsworth; Thomas Dunne Books; April 2017; 320 pp; $26.99
By Ann Jonas
For The Visitor
The Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, is probably best known for its connection to “the day the music died,” Feb. 3, 1959, when rock and roll musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson perished in a plane crash after performing there.
Author Loretta Ellsworth has set her new historical novel “Stars Over Clear Lake” in Clear Lake, with the Surf Ballroom as a focal point.
Ellsworth alternates her narrative between the recent past (2007) and the 1940s.
The book begins in 2007 when the main character, Lorraine Kindred, is an elderly, recently widowed woman with a headstrong, often argumentative daughter. While visiting the Surf Ballroom for the first time in many years, Lorraine reminisces about singing, dancing and just spending time in the original ballroom, which burned down while she was a young woman. When her son-in-law asks her about the fire that leveled the ballroom in 1947, Lorraine tells him she does not recall what happened that evening, even though readers know she is hiding something.
In the 1940s, Lorraine is a young teen growing up on a farm in rural Iowa; her older brother has recently enlisted in the armed forces. Lorraine often clashes with her mother, who is a bitter woman, but her mother is thrilled when Lorraine begins dating Scotty Bishop.
Scotty has a great future ahead of him and the expectation is that after finishing high school Lorraine will marry him and become a homemaker and mother, even though her dream is to be a professional singer.
When Lorraine’s brother leaves to fight the Nazis, her father decides to hire five German prisoners from a nearby POW camp in Algona to help him with the farm work. Lorraine regularly brings them lunch and meets Jens, a polite, handsome German soldier, and is soon attracted to him. She is conflicted as Jens is “the enemy” and yet she develops strong feelings for him.
As the story progresses, Lorraine struggles with her choices: should she marry Scotty, who is a great “catch,” or follow her heart. She has a chance for a musical scholarship at St. Olaf College but isn’t sure if she should pursue her interests or simply support Scotty’s as he finishes his college career.
“Stars Over Clear Lake” gives readers a nostalgic glimpse of life in small-town America in the 1940s when ballrooms existed in many towns throughout the country. The book offers some surprising plot twists, poignant romance and an interesting story line, with actual events and a landmark building woven in.
Ellsworth grew up in Mason City, Iowa; her parents met at the nearby Surf Ballroom. She states in her book that many people are unaware that approximately 700 POW camps were scattered throughout the United States during World War II, including the one in Algona, Iowa. Ellsworth visited the Camp Algona POW Museum and interviewed descendants of former POWs before writing her novel. She is the author of four young adult novels and resides in Lakeville, Minnesota.
Ann Jonas is the general book buyer for the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University.