I Gave My Heart to Know This: A Novel

I Gave My Heart to Know This: A Novel

by Ellen Baker

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I Gave My Heart to Know This: A Novel by Ellen Baker

Ellen Baker is beloved for crafting intimate domestic stories that resonate deeply with readers. In I Gave My Heart to Know This, the award-winning author returns with a sweeping multigenerational saga of the searing power of war, memory, friendship, and family.

In January 1944, Grace Anderson, Lena Maki, and Lena’s mother, Violet, have joined the growing ranks of women working for the war effort. Though they find satisfaction in their jobs at a Wisconsin shipyard, it isn’t enough to distract them from the anxieties of wartime, or their fears for the men they love: Lena’s twin brother, Derrick, and Grace’s high school sweetheart, Alex. When shattering news arrives from the front, the lives of the three women are pitched into turmoil. As one is pushed to the brink of madness, the others are forced into choices they couldn’t have imagined—and their lives will never be the same. 

More than five decades later, Violet’s great-granddaughter, Julia, returns to the small farmhouse where Violet and Lena once lived. Listless from her own recent tragedy, Julia begins to uncover the dark secrets that shattered her family, eventually learning that redemption—and love—can be found in the most unexpected places. 

Beautifully written and profoundly moving, I Gave My Heart to Know This is a riveting story of loyalties held and sacred bonds broken; crushing loss and enduring dreams; and what it takes—and what it means—to find the way home.

From the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780679643944
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/02/2011
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 401,223
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Ellen Baker is author of Keeping the House, which won the 2008 Great Lakes Book Award. She has worked as a bookseller and event coordinator at an independent bookstore. She lives in Minnesota.

From the Hardcover edition.

Read an Excerpt

Part One


January 1944 Grace Anderson stepped out into the biting wind, clutching her father’s old lunch box. In the muted light of nearing dawn, the Superior Shipbuilding Company’s vast parking lot was so full that some latecomers’ cars were half on snowbanks, tilting at precarious angles, and the men emerging from them were sheepish or angry or chuckling, and other men were joshing them, the sounds carry- ing across the stillness as if across water. She heard the far-off banging of metal on metal, the creaking of cables, the screaming of machinery—the night shift finishing up as the day shift came on.

She saw Violet and Lena Maki, the mother and daughter who’d started as welders the same day as Grace last November, getting out of their neighbor’s truck; they made the long journey to town every day from their farm. She waved, but they didn’t see her. Not surprising, in this crowd of shadowy men in their dark wool coats, scruffy pants and boots, with pin-on buttons on their hats—member local no. 117; boilermakers and shipbuilders; solidarity. Grace’s muscles ached against her heavy clothes as she merged with the mass, moving toward the gates. She’d been working here only two months, but the smells of smoke and metal and worn-too-often-too-long clothes, the sounds of lunch boxes thunking against legs and boots crunching on packed snow seemed eternally familiar. Ahead, floodlights brightened the skeleton of a four-story-tall ocean­going cargo ship, the nearly completed hull of another in the opposite slip, the cranes hulking above both. In the farthest slip was a just-christened frigate with its sleek, pointed bow, proud superstructure, and low, flat stern—Grace’s favorite. The Coast Guard crew took this ship on near-daily test runs on Lake Superior; she would soon be heading for Lake Michigan, the Illinois Canal, down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico, and, from there, anywhere in the world.

Grace turned up her collar against the wind, thinking what a far cry this life was from what she’d dreamed.

But she laughed when she caught sight of Boots Dahlquist unfolding her six-foot frame from underneath a blanket on the floor of a Ford V8—Boots lived across the harbor in Duluth, Minnesota, and the fellows she carpooled with had elected her to hide out to save on tolls when they crossed the bridge to Wisconsin. “Worth the nickel, Boots?” Grace called.

“Don’t you know there’s a war on?” Boots said, unkinking her back.

Grace saw Lena hurrying toward them, cutting against the grain of the foot traffic. “Grace, I’ve got something to show you,” she called, and she was clutching a piece of paper in her gloved hand, waving it above her head.

The cold made Grace’s smile slow motion. “A surprise? You didn’t have to, kid.” When Grace had first met Lena, she’d worried that the girl’s billiard-cue wrists might break under the strain of the job, but she’d quickly learned how stubborn Lena was. She and Boots had started teasing that Lena’s bones were made of steel. “If you break, we won’t worry—we’ll just weld you back together!” Lena’s mother, Violet, didn’t seem to think that was funny, but there wasn’t much that she did.

Lena reached them, her pale skin flushed, her eyes the color of a low winter sky. When she smiled, her nose dipped like a divining rod. “I got a letter,” she said, and her voice was the chirping of a bird being carried away on a strong breeze. “From Derrick.”

Grace and Boots let out automatic groans. Lena and Violet often discussed Lena’s twin brother’s evidently limitless merits—one of the few subjects on which daughter and mother agreed.

Lena stamped her foot and pointed with a gloved finger at the text. “I sent him a picture of the four of us, and he wants to meet you! I mean, write to you.”

Grace was trying to shield her face from the wind. “For Pete’s sake, Lena, it’s cold out here. Let’s not just stand here.”

“He says, ‘She’s every bit as pretty as you described, and if she’s as sweet and funny as you say, I sure would like to hear from her, if she wouldn’t mind helping “boost the morale” of a poor, lonely sailor, sniff, sniff.’”

“Morale!” Boots said. “Now you’re in for it!” Everyone knew that any girl who refused to do her part to boost a serviceman’s “morale” was not only heartless but practically handing victory to the enemy.

Lena was serious. “He’s just joking with that ‘sniff, sniff,’ part, he’s got plenty of pen pals, but you’re from home, Hollywood.”

Lena had come up with Grace’s nickname supposedly because she looked “just like” the movie star Lana Turner, but since Grace imagined the real reason was that she always wore red lipstick and black mascara to work, it was a reminder not only that she hadn’t been blessed with Lena’s flawless pale skin and shadow-casting long eyelashes but also of the dream she’d deferred of going to Hollywood to become a costume designer. “Forget it, Lena. You know I have a boyfriend.”

“Alex Kowalski, Mr. East High 1942,” Boots supplied.

“Very funny,” Grace said. Her friends had given her a hard time because she’d draped her work locker with pink organdy and pasted up photos of Alex in all his uniforms—Marine, baseball, ­basketball—as well as of him and Grace together at the spring dance, graduation. “This isn’t high school, Hollywood,” Lena had scoffed, while Boots laughed and Violet frowned. “You’ve got to admit the place needed a little dressing up,” Grace had shot back, thinking there was no reason for anyone to be jealous. Alex’s pictures were nice to look at, but she hadn’t seen him in a year and a half. She still wrote him daily, but she didn’t tell him much. It wouldn’t do to complain about the cold weather and hard work of the shipyard to a boy who was off living in mud and mosquitoes, fighting a war.

Lena handed Grace a snapshot from the envelope. “Derrick’s the one on the right.” Two sailors in work dungarees squinted into the sun. Derrick, shorter and leaner than the other fellow, with light blond hair and a straight nose like Lena’s, leaned all his weight on his right foot and tilted his head with a just-perceptible smile, as if he was on the verge of asking the prettiest girl in the room to dance.

Written on the back was: Me and Grabowski in Calif. sun getting ready for our next big “starring roles,” Dec. 1943. Note authentic-looking “sweat.”

Lena said, “They’re in California, training in the desert.”

“Well, I guess I don’t need to hear about it, when I’ll be there soon enough,” Grace said, shoving the snapshot to Lena as Violet approached.

“Oh, Derrick’s picture!” Violet said, smiling. Grace didn’t know how Violet always managed to look like she’d just stepped off a propaganda poster, her pants and even her wool jacket pressed and clean, her boots shiny, the red bandanna covering her hair as bright as a rose. “He looks just like his father looked when he was young,” she said, her mouth relaxing into its typical frown. She’d made no secret of her anger at her husband, Jago, who’d signed Derrick’s enlistment papers so Derrick could go into the Navy at age seventeen, last summer. They hadn’t told Violet until it was done. “Except that Derrick actually is as nice a boy as he looks.”

Grace started again toward the gates, rubbing her face with her free hand. “Are we standing in this wind for our health?”

“I don’t see why you’d ever want to go to California,” Lena said, catching up. “You might be something special around here, but, out there, girls like you are going to be a dime a dozen, honestly.”

“Thanks, kid.”

“I just mean, you think dull old Alex is what ‘home’ means, but what if you met someone from here you liked better? Besides, it wouldn’t hurt to have a new pen pal.”

Behind them, Boots whistled; Lena must have given her the picture. “I’d say it wouldn’t hurt one bit. You do realize he’s not really a movie star, though, right, Gracie?”

Violet laughed; sure, she’d think this was funny, of all things.

“Alex isn’t dull, Lena,” Grace said, her stomach tightening. “I don’t know why you even bothered telling your brother about me.”

“Well, we like to know everything that’s going on with each other, so of course I told him all about you, and now he wants you to write to him, and I just want him to be happy. Would it hurt you to do it?”

Just what Grace needed: another boy to tie her to this town. ­Obviously, he was only in California because the Navy had sent him there. Even worse, he was a farm boy, short, and too young ­besides—just eighteen, compared to her almost twenty. “You never know.”

“Derrick wouldn’t hurt you,” Lena said. “Never. Besides, I bet he’d tell you everything about California, and you’d find out it isn’t nearly as great as what you think.”

Grace got in line to punch her time card, tuning out Lena’s breathy voice going on to Boots and Violet about how ridiculous Grace was to dream of California, where they didn’t even have seasons. As far as Grace was concerned, that was a main selling point, as it should have been for anyone standing in this bitter wind in the dark on the crusted-over snow. On the billboard above the gate was the image of a soldier lying facedown, his stiff hand outstretched like a claw, showing the agony of his death. and you talk of “SACRIFICES”! canceling bond pledges won’t help.

She shivered, wondering, as she did every morning, standing here, if she was wrong to keep telling Alex they shouldn’t be exclusive, when he was off risking his life for their country. Talk about not doing her part for “morale.” Of course, when he’d left for the Marines, she’d been headed for fashion design school in Chicago, planning not to give her hometown a backward glance, and she hadn’t thought he should be made to feel beholden to a girl who had the whole world in her sights. But then, a month into school, she’d received the telegram from her mother about her father’s stroke, and the summons to come home to take care of her younger brothers and sister—her mother had to go to work. Riding the train back north to Superior, watching out the window the red leaves drifting to the ground, Grace had thought: A temporary sidetrack. He’ll be better in a month. But when she’d walked into her parents’ house and smelled the boiled coffee and rye bread and lingonberry jam and seen her father stranded in his bed, his body and face slackened, only his sparking blue eyes familiar, even as an apology lingered in them, a looks like we won’t be dancing to Your Hit Parade this Saturday night, Gracie, she’d known this was no drill, that she was in it for the long haul.

She’d taken care of him, her siblings, and most of the housework, for a year. Radio broadcasts of war news and FDR’s Fireside Chats seemed her only connection to the actual world. And then, last fall, her uncle, Jorgen Anderson—who, as chief loftsman, was one of the most important men at the shipyard—had called with the news that the yard was going to be hiring girls as welders, and paying them more than a dollar an hour. Her dad had grown well enough to shuffle around the house and keep an eye on ten-year-old Susan and six-year-old Ted when they got home from school; Pete, at fourteen, was old enough to look after himself, mostly. So her mother had encouraged her, saying the family could use the extra money, and Grace, tired of being the only girl in the whole USA not doing anything for the war effort, and wanting to save some money besides, for when her dad was finally back to normal, had signed up for the six-week training course, and now here she was, day after long, cold day. Yet she kept holding out on Alex, unable to stand the thought that she might end up stuck in this town forever.

It was her turn to punch in. She shuddered at the noise the machine made, handed her card to the attendant, and dragged her feet through the massive gates. The slab—the low stage in the yard’s center where all the beginning welders were assigned—was visible in the distance. Here, after burners had cut the steel into the sizes and shapes indicated on the ship’s plans, welders like Grace and her friends worked to fasten immense flat pieces of steel together, forming the large sections of the ship’s hull. Lying down on the below-zero steel was the worst part. No matter how many layers of scratchy wool and stiff leather Grace wore, the cold always seemed to shoot straight into her bone marrow. After an hour, she’d be so frozen that, when she tried to get up, her legs wouldn’t want to bend. Even in wool socks and work boots, her feet would burn like she’d soaked them in ice water, a disconcerting contrast to the hot stickiness under her arms and around her collar. Her head and neck would ache from her welding helmet and the intermittent bright flashes. Eventually, she’d get up and shuffle to the warming shack, elbowing between hulking men, peeling off her two sets of gloves, holding her filthy hands an inch from the black stove without feeling the warmth.

But the monotony of drawing flat seam after flat seam was almost worse than the discomfort. She’d asked her uncle if she might work for him in the loft, where he supervised the transferring of the engineers’ drawings into full-size paper patterns, which were then used to cut basswood templates of the ship’s pieces. Grace had thought the loft would be the perfect place to employ her three-dimensional imagination, but her uncle had told her girls weren’t being hired there. “The skills it takes, Gracie, and the amount of training,” he’d said with a shrug.

Lena caught up to her. “Did I tell you Derrick’s a really good dancer?”

“Very funny,” Grace said. She’d told her friends about Alex’s enormous feet, as graceful as canoes out of water; how, every school dance, she’d wound up taking her own bruised feet to the floor with a series of less handsome, less treacherous boys while Alex leaned sheepishly in the corner, drawing longing looks from girls who didn’t know any better than to wish he’d ask them to dance.

“I’m not trying to be funny.”

“Forget it, Lena, I told you, I don’t want the distraction.” Crossing the railroad track, Grace thought of the supply train that stopped at the shipyard daily to drop off gondolas full of steel and pick up empties; how she always imagined swinging up onto a boxcar’s ladder and riding to the main rail yard, then somehow finding a car that was on its way to California, stowing away . . .

Well, for now, she had to be content with trying for a promotion. The good welders got to do different jobs all over the yard, and she could imagine the many locations that would be more interesting than the slab—not to mention warmer.

Probably not as interesting as the loft, and not as warm as California, but still.

The clamor of the anchor was unmistakable.

“Lena! We’re going to get fired!” Grace said. A promotion suddenly seemed like the last thing she could hope for. Lena had told her they’d been invited by a crew member to have lunch aboard the frigate, and Grace had trailed her up the gangplank. But, with the anchor chain clattering, whistle blowing, and a voice blaring over the loudspeaker, “Last warning to unauthorized personnel,” Grace knew there’d been no invitation.

Lena winked, pulling Grace from approaching footsteps. “Relax, we’ll be back right after lunch,” she whispered. “Besides, they wouldn’t fire us.” She started up the nearest ladder; Grace surrendered and followed, fighting to keep her equilibrium as the frigate’s engines churned.

A long corridor, another long climb, the ship picking up speed. Around each corner seemed to echo a new set of footsteps; Grace’s nerves were high voltage. When Lena tried the handle of a heavy door, it opened, blasting them with arctic air. “Come on!”

The steel door slammed shut behind Grace. Clenching her teeth, she followed Lena up one more ladder, to the topmost deck, and caught up to her at the railing. Her face and lungs burned in the frigid air. “Lena, I cannot believe you—”

“Look,” Lena interrupted, gesturing to the horizon.

The frigate was cutting through churning ice chunks, passing through the swing bridge that connected Duluth and Superior. Across the harbor was the miles-long sandbar of Minnesota Point, doll-size houses dotting its length; beyond it, four ore boats clustered on Lake Superior. To Grace’s left, an immense freighter was taking on grain at Superior’s new elevators, said to be the largest and tallest in the world. Some distance to her right were the coal docks, where two ships were being filled with black cargo. The ore docks, where her father had worked, poked into the harbor beyond them. And when she turned to face south, she could see the whole busy city of Superior, spread out like it was bowing at her feet, darting cars and tiny houses bleeding into the distance.

It suddenly seemed possible: someday, she just might get out of this town.

“See how beautiful it is?” Lena said. “Why would you ever want to live anywhere else?”

Grace laughed, shaking her head.

Lena grinned. “Now, don’t think I was going to make you go hungry,” she said, pulling a wax-paper-wrapped pasty from her pocket. She tore it in two and handed half to Grace. Even cold, the combination of flaky dough, tender venison, and potatoes was as delicious as anything Grace had ever tasted—she understood why Lena scorned cafeteria food. Despite the freezing wind, she actually felt happy, standing here with Lena, watching Superior shrink in the distance as the proud ship forged its path through the harbor.

From the Hardcover edition.


Dear Reader,

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.

Best wishes,
Ellen Baker

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I Gave My Heart to Know This 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 44 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I didn't expect to like this book. Thought it would be a quick and easy read for a day of travel. Found myself hating my Nook for the first time ever when I was told to turn it off during take off and landing. I fell in love with these women. The good, the bad and the crazy!, I wasn't ready to say goodbye, I wasn't ready for their story to end. Is there really anything better at the end of a book then that??
VirtuousWomanKF More than 1 year ago
"I Gave My Heart To Know This" is a very thought provoking story of women and how deeply they love, but also what they loose of themselves. This is a family saga with great historical detail, transporting you to Wisconsin during WWII. Baker does a great job with character development along with at few twists and turns that keep you devoted to turning the page. I truly enjoyed Ellen Bakers's first novel as well, "Keeping House", and look forward to her future novels.
booknookjw More than 1 year ago
A fan of Baker's first effort Keeping the House, I anxiously awaited the release of her second and I Gave My Heart to Know This did not disappoint. Rich characters and well-researched historical detail nuanced into flowing prose, describing a perfect sense of place, and paced with a growing momentum to reach the finish, kept me turning the pages - all the while savoring each word and not wanting it to end. I enjoyed Baker's return to familiar themes: the pull of an old family home and being drawn into the secrets it keeps, the effects of war and loss on those left behind, and the familial generational connections needed to uncover the past and make things right. However, ultimately I found this a great read all on its own and highly recommend it.
KJMN More than 1 year ago
I do not read nearly as much as I'd like to - so I'm choosy about what I do pick up - and this is a novel I could not put down. Thank you Ms. Baker! Loved this book and you will too if you enjoy gripping intense drama comingled with love, longing and believable, endearing characters. In fact, the character development was so absolute, ending a chapter felt like saying goodbye to a dear friend, knowing someday you'd pick up right where you left off - yet sad to see each other part ways. As an added bonus, I learned more about the work of a woman welding in the WWII shipyards, and the atrocities of the turn of the century mining camps than I ever did in a history class - perhaps because of the beautiful way Baker carefully weaves our nation's empowering, heroic and often tragic snapshots in time into her work. Pick up the book - take a few days to relax and do nothing but read and relish this delicious new novel from Ellen Baker! -Kim P.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The book had a good story line/ plot. However at times it was a bit confusing, too much switching back and forth between time. All in all it kept my attention
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
LouieLB More than 1 year ago
It took me a while to get a handle on who was related to who, due to the different time frames, but this is a fantastic book. I would recommend this to anyone who has any interest in learning how family history follows one around. You can follow the hurt and heart break of losing a family member and the love of other people. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and will reread it again in the future.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
First book I have read by this offer. I enjoyed it but found it to be a little slow at times. I would read another book by this author . The author keeps you hoping and rooting for the characters.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Enjoyable after you sort out the different women in the different generations. Sometimes it was heartbreaking, but those were the times and it was an interesting look at the war from the perspective of those left to wait at home and pray for their loved ones' safe returns. Okay, the war wasn't actually fought in our country, but there were hardships aplenty. Not a bad read and you will learn something about that period of our history.
eagle3tx More than 1 year ago
Women and family farm near Superior, Wisconsin, 1925-2000. A tale of women forced by circumstance into compromises/ decisions they would not otherwise have made – and how they survive, sometimes thrive, hanging onto possibly unrealistic dreams. All the characters are realistic, sometimes selfless, sometimes selfish. They approach their goals differently – the right things for the wrong reasons, and vice-versa. What are you willing to endure, or do to others, to achieve your goals? Can manipulation really be for the greater good? Can you, will you, atone for these decisions? The book starts with the birth of Violet’s twins in 1925 and jumps quickly to 1999 when Julia comes to care-take the farm for a year – and discovers a trunk full of letters involving family members and someone named Grace. Then it’s 1944 and Violet and daughter Lena are employed at shipyard with Grace. The narrative largely follows Grace, as Julia tries learn her exact connection to the farm, as well as work through generations of dysfunction. The path is fairly convoluted, but comes to a satisfying ending, though I’m not sure how the book title fits the story.
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I didn't think the characters were developed enough to share their deep experiences.
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Tim Simmons More than 1 year ago
Kind of a girl's book, but well done. It was a good read.
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