The life of Magnolia native Katherine (Kroontje) Vastenhout is featured in a series of books written by Carol Brands, Edgerton, and edited by Dorothy Ricehill, Luverne.
Brands and Ricehill (Katherine’s sister) will be available next week to sign copies of Book 1, “Little White Farm House in Iowa,” which chronicles the early years of Vastenhout’s life as a child in the 1930s.
When Brands talks about her books, she tells readers why and how she wrote them.
Essentially, Brands is a retired school teacher who has always wanted to write Christian children’s books, and Vastenhout, a farm girl from the Depression Era, always thought her life story would be a good read.
One day the two women met and made their dreams come true.
Brands was working as a certified nursing assistant at Edgebrook Care Center in Edgerton where Vastenhout became a resident in 2008.
As the women came to know each other, Brands said Vastenhout often commented, “My life should be in a book,” and Brands agreed. “After years of listening to her, I said, ‘Katherine, let’s do it.’”
She and Vastenhout met every other week for lunch. Brands took notes while they visited, and in between visits would type them up as chapters in the book.
“Then we’d meet again, and I would read to her what I wrote,” Brands said. Often Vastenhout remembered additional details that could be included, and Brands said she’d be back to the drawing board to rewrite her chapters.
Her goal was for each chapter to be 10 pages long. “Because that’s about the perfect length for oral reading,” Brands said.
“My biggest challenge in writing was to condense all the information into usable chapters,” she said. “That was the hardest part.”
In addition to relying on Vastenhout’s memory, Brands said she spent untold hours researching the time periods in order to make the books historically accurate.
Three years later the first in the series was released. Later this summer the second will be published. The third is set for publishing this fall.
Books have ‘Laura Ingalls Wilder’ flavor
Brands describes the books as a “fictionalized biography” of Vastenhout’s life, with a “Laura Ingalls Wilder” flavor.
The original goal was to produce one book, but Brands said she quickly realized there was enough material for three books.
The first book, “Little White Farm House in Iowa,” is about Vastenhout’s life in her first home in Iowa during the Depression years.
Chapter titles offer a hint as to some of the family dramas the book describes. Among them are “Whooping Cough,” “Threshing and Dorothy,” “Watchie and the Bull” and “Blizzard of the Century,” which is about the Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940.
Book 2 is about her life during WWII. Book 3 is about her family’s move to Magnolia until her marriage. “… So that book is a romance,” Brands said.
Family tree has many branches in Rock County
“Our people in this area are going to have the same memories of the Depression years and the war years,” Brands said. “So, they are going to relate to what went on in the books.”
Further, she said, people in the Rock County and southwest Minnesota area are going to recognize names in the books.
“Almost everyone I’ve talked to in this area knows somebody in this book,” she said. “People in this area who read the book are going to be surprised at the names they recognize.”
The books are about Katherine, the second oldest in a family of six children. But the stories make frequent references to her siblings, many of whom still live in the Rock County area, as do many of their children and grandchildren.
Her parents are the late Wilbur and Susie (Tilstra) Kroontje, who lived in Luverne after they retired from the farm near Magnolia.
Her older brother is the late Willie Kroontje, her younger siblings are Gerrit Kroontje (Leota), Dorothy Ricehill, (Luverne), John Kroontje (Kenneth) and Marvin Kroontje (Magnolia).
Vastenhout and her husband, the late Bill Vastenhout, farmed in the Leota area.
Ricehill said the process of editing the stories and working with Brands was rewarding.
“I just enjoyed every minute of it,” Ricehill said. “It was really a lot of fun; it stirred up a lot of memories for me.”
What was interesting, she said, was the differences in the details remembered by her older sister, Katherine, compared to how she remembered them.
For example, the book describes Ricehill as an inquisitive child, eager to ask questions.
“I don’t think I was like that at all,” Ricehill said. “I always thought of myself as a shy, scared, bashful child who preferred to be in the shadows.”
Vastenhout passed away just as Book 1 was being printed, and Ricehill said reliving her memories through the book editing has helped her grieve the loss of her sister.
“It is kind of like living that life all over again, when she was very alive and very real,” Ricehill said.
She said the process has reminded her that the “good old days” weren’t always that good — that there were hard times and heartache.
“But the book brings out the fact that we as a family cared about each other and cared for one another,” she said. “And we always sat down and had every meal together.”
Book 1, “Little White Farm House in Iowa,” came back from the printers on the Thursday after Christmas in 2011, and Vastenhout died on Wednesday.
“We can plan, but God rules,” Brands said. “God has his own reasons for letting things work out this way. And certainly in glory, Katherine has no regrets.”
Book 1 will be available for purchase at next week’s book signings, and they are for sale at Grapevines for the month of June. The Carnegie Cultural Center gift shop will sell them after that.
The books are also available at locations in Edgerton, Leota and Pipestone, and by contacting Brands and Ricehill.
Brands can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Ricehill can be reached at 283-2538.
Author Carol Brands and editor Dorothy Ricehill will be at The Coffey Haus from 9 to 11 a.m. Wednesday, June 6.
They’ll be at the Rock County Library from 3 to 5 p.m. Thursday, June 7; and at the Carnegie Cultural Center from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, June 7.
Brands will offer a 15-minute presentation at the Carnegie.