Twin Ports author to speak at Two Harbors public libraryIt was when Ellen Baker was curator for the Richard I. Bong Heritage Center about eight years ago that she first learned about the massive shipbuilding that went on in Superior during World War II.
By: Forum Newspapers, Lake County News Chronicle
It was when Ellen Baker was curator for the Richard I. Bong Heritage Center about eight years ago that she first learned about the massive shipbuilding that went on in Superior during World War II.
As she researched life on the homefront, she learned about the Butler, Globe, and other Twin Ports shipyards. At their height in 1944, 10,000 workers built hundreds of ocean-going vessels for the war effort.
With a shortage of male labor, the shipyards resorted to hiring women for traditionally male jobs, including welding. Proving themselves capable, more women were hired. A lot of them.
Looking at the old pictures, Baker became fascinated.
“Seeing the women in their welding clothing and helmets, it’s kind of an iconic image of women at work during World War II,” Baker said. “And it happened in the city where I was living.”
Several years later, when she was looking for an idea for her second novel, it occurred to her that the shipyards would make a good setting and the “girl welders” interesting characters.
After four years of work, the result is “I Gave My Heart to Know This,” published by Random House. It’s the story of three women who work as welders in a Superior shipyard during the war. It explores their daily lives and their friendships as they do a man’s job in often difficult conditions and as they cope with the loss of loved ones to the war. At the story’s heart is a single tragedy that both binds and fractures them, altering lives for generations.
Baker will speak at the Two Harbors Public Library at 6:30 p.m. Monday.
Fifty years later, family secrets and lies are discovered by a great-granddaughter who pieces the mystery together and tries to bring the family together.
“Loss is a theme in the novel and what we do with loss and how it affects the paths of our lives,” said Baker, 35, who now lives in Duluth. “The things that happened during World War II in the novel affected the course of all the characters in the book, even who they are, before and after the war. But it’s not just a question of what they lost, but what they found.”
The story begins in the shipyards where friendships form. Through Grace, the main character who’s said to resemble Lana Turner, we learn of their struggle working outside in the bitter cold, the resentment and leering they encounter from some male co-workers and the women’s drive to keep going to do their part for the boys overseas. Dangerous welding assignments come Grace’s way because she is light enough and slight enough to get into tight spots and good enough to get the job done.
Pushing herself, we sense her growing stronger.
Like Baker’s first book, “Keeping the House,” a multi-generational saga spanning the first half of the 20th century, Baker immersed herself into historical research to get even the smallest details right as she wove actual events into her storytelling. A visit by World War II flying ace Richard I. Bong. Work continuing at the shipyards when President Franklin Roosevelt died even though other businesses closed. A radio broadcast of the ringing of the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, sounding over the shipyard’s loudspeakers as workers pause in silence.
Baker read as much as she could find about shipbuilding in Superior and what Superior was like then. She studied photographs, pored over newspaper articles, interviewed women and men who had been shipyard welders. And she toured a Great Lakes ship to get a sense of scale.
“It’s not just getting the facts straight, it’s the sensory information, so I could put the reader there,” she explained. “I didn’t have the experience of actually going to World War II shipyards. I had to imagine all that.”
But perhaps the biggest find was a memoir at the Douglas County Historical Society written by Carol Johnson Fistler, who had worked for the Globe Shipbuilding Co. as an arc welder for two years during the war.
“Her memoir was so great,” Baker said.
There’s a lot of Carol in Grace and in scenes inspired by her memoir: Grace sent on the difficult task of telling a friend and co-worker that her son had gone missing in action. Grace, weighted down by her equipment, almost plunging into the bay while trying to weld from a small boat. Grace succumbing to smoke inhalation after welding in a narrow passage. All were inspired by Carol’s experiences.
But the setting of Baker’s story doesn’t stay in the shipyards. It couldn’t.
“After the war, shipyards and aircraft plants closed down,” said Jerry Sandvick, a historian and president of the Lake Superior Marine Museum Association. “Both men and women were suddenly laid off.”
The five shipyards in Duluth and Superior had been huge employers.
The general idea was that if Great Lakes ports built the somewhat smaller vessels – though still sizable at 350 feet long – that would free the coastal shipyards to build the larger vessels, Sandvick said.
“After the war, there were so many surplus cargo ships from the war, the shipbuilding business dried up,” he said.
How these women welders fared after the war is part of Baker’s story. Women in general were expected to step aside so that jobs were waiting for returning servicemen.
“I think that must have been a challenge for women who did different types of work during the war, such a challenge to set that aside,” Baker said. “Now that your man is home, pick up that apron. That’s your job now.”