The Runaway Friend

Written by Kathleen Ernst; illustrated by Jean-Paul Tibbles

Published in 2008


Kirsten and her family get a brief respite from the hard work of harvesting the wheat crop to be interviewed by a woman from Sweden, who's writing about immigrating to the New World. Kirsten feels important to have a part in people deciding whether to immigrate. But her excitement is short-lived: the next day, a sheriff arrives to repossess the team of oxen her father and uncle have been using to harvest the wheat. Kirsten's uncle Olav and a neighbor, Erik, had bought the team together and were making payments, but it seems that Erik's payment have fallen delinquent. Furthermore, Erik has disappeared. The adults think he skipped town to avoid facing the debt, but Kirsten isn't convinced.

Kirsten wants to prove Erik's innocence, and get him help if he's in trouble, but she's busy trying to help with the wheat harvest. Plus, the amber heart necklace her grandmother gave her before she left Sweden is suddenly missing! She's able to confirm her suspicions about Erik soon: she has to find a cow that's wandered off into the woods, conveniently near Erik's shanty. His pouch of marbles, a keepsake from his late father, is still there. Kirsten is convinced he wouldn't leave them behind, so he's either coming back or was forced to leave. In the shanty, Kirsten also happens upon a hidden compartment which contains a photograph of a beautiful woman. There's also a newspaper with a corner of the front page torn off. Kirsten knows that another family who was interviewed that first night got a copy. If she can find an untorn newspaper, maybe she can figure out where Erik is.

The second copy of the paper turns out to belong to the Greens, another immigrant family, far more well-off than Kirsten's family. They're also sort of odd, very reserved, and the mother and daughter are often worried. The mother seems to have some sort of anxiety disorder, rarely leaving the house even for necessary farm chores but neglecting the chores inside, leaving the daughter to do much of the work. She is also worried about theft, but while some neighbors' small things have gone missing (like the necklace), nothing has been stolen from them. Kirsten also notices that they cellar door has a lock on the inside. Why would they want to be able to lock themselves in rather than keep animals out?

Soon Kirsten has more questions, when an envelope arrives addressed to Erik, containing only a fancy button. Then she happens upon a little treasure box in the Greens' cellar...full of the stolen items. Among them is another envelope for Erik, containing a marble like the ones his father made him. Kirsten now thinks she knows why Erik left so suddenly: the torn part of the newspaper referenced a woman who had abandoned her husband, and Kirsten is sure the woman is Erik's sister. The button and the marble were meant to be clues for Erik.

Before she can test her theory, Kirsten solves a different mystery. She initially thinks that the Greens' daughter had stolen the items, but it turns out to be the mother. After the death of her older daughter and moving to America, Mrs. Green's nerves are frayed beyond the breaking point. She's convinced that people, especially Native Americans, will steal any and everything, so she hides them to keep them safe. The lock on the cellar door is so that she can lock herself inside when her fears completely overwhelm her. Just as Kirsten's learning this, Erik shows up, and confirms what Kirsten thought about his sister leaving her implied-to-be-abusive husband.

The story ends with the team of oxen restored to Olav, most of the wheat saved, the Greens deciding to move back to Sweden (and leave their horse with the Larsons!), and Erik's sister free of her abusive husband.

Looking Back

The historical section gives information about the hardships and opportunities that immigrants faced. The very end of it also has the translation of a few Swedish words from the story. Included is "mormor" which means "maternal grandmother" (literally "mother's mother"). It specifies that mormor is solely for the maternal grandmother but neglects to inform the reader of the name for a paternal grandmother, which is "formor" ("father's mother"). I only know because my best friend's recently deceased grandmother, RIP, was Mormor to her and her sister and Formor to the other grandchildren, through her son.


The book is dedicated to the Writer Chicks "with thanks for everything."

In Meet Kirsten, the Swedish word for "thank you" is spelled "tak" while in this book it's spelled "tack." Looks like the latter is accurate.

Kirsten's father is more harsh with her in this book than in the main six, but he's facing considerable stress so it's not totally out of character.

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