Local author to share story at Prairie Lights reading
Seventy-seven-year-old Iowan Ethel Barker fell in love with the history of orphan-train children in 1988 after reading an article in a magazine that she got from the Iowa State Historical Society.
Since then, she has retraced the history of the topic. Finally, she came up with her first book, For the Love of Pete,l which was released three weeks ago at the Midwest Book Sellers Show.
Tonight, she will read for the first time from For the Love of Pete at Prairie Lights, 15 S. Dubuque St.
Barker said she attended the University of Iowa Summer Writing Festival to aid her writing.
“I used a lot of resources, and I spent a long time putting it together into a fictional book,” she said. “It took about eight years.”
The book, set in 1880, follows the journeys of three young orphan children — a boy named Pete and two girls being transported on an orphan train from New York to Iowa.
In Iowa, the three children are taken to an opera house and displayed.
“The boys have to show their muscles, and the girls have to show that they will not be troublemakers,” she said. “And the older children have to be put to work.”
Barker said the amount of time she spent writing the book enabled her to try new things and play around with her writing.
“I originally wrote it in first person,” she said. “But one of the teachers at the University of Iowa Summer Writing Festival suggested that I write it in first person from each character’s perspective, and to me, that was really fun.”
For Ed Barker, Ethel Barker’s husband of 52 years, the characters attract him to the book.
“Pete is the liveliest one out of the three,” he said. “He came from a more difficult situation than the girls did, but he met them in New York, and he bought them food and kind of looked after them.”
The way the book is written makes it enjoyable to read, he said.
“It’s written in first person,” he said. “Each child speaks in a different chapter, and you get each child’s side of the story.
Steve Semken, Ethel Barker’s publisher and the founder of Midwest-theme Ice Cube Press, said he immediately fell in love with the story after only reading two chapters.
“I saw her at the Iowa City Book Festival last year and asked her if she was still writing, and she kind of laughed and said, ‘Yeah, but nothing you’d want to read,’ ” he said. “I told her to send me what she has. She sent me a couple chapters, and I knew just had to read the rest of the story.”
Although Barker’s intended audience was originally junior-high age, Semken said the story’s historical plot is appealing to everyone because it reconnects people with history.
“Every detail that you’re reading about the way the children in the story were taken out of New York, and put on a train, and transported to Iowa is appealing to all age groups,” he said. “And you learn about how people ended up in the Midwest, which is interesting because people got here some way or another.”
Although Barker’s first book was published later in her life, she said, she has long been interested in writing and plans to keep writing in the future.
Barker is working on another book about a farm family in Iowa who send their older boy to war after Pearl Harbor.
“I am a slow writer, so for now, I will just keep working on it,” she said.
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