One of Elaine Haugen’s goals in life was to write a trilogy of books, said her husband, Gene. She did not live to see that goal but she did complete a book on her family history, a book that is now available through Amazon and the Dakota Store in Jamestown.
“Rings of a Family Tree” is Elaine Staaël Haugen's story, told with the help of ghostwriter Jennifer Bourne.
“It’s a really incredible family history, it’s an incredible story,” Bourne said.
Written in short chapters, the story begins with Elaine’s great-grandmother, Hannah, who journeys from her home in Norway to America and literally marries her betrothed before getting off the ship.
It is not a happy marriage. At one point, Hannah became a patient in the North Dakota State Hospital. Years later, Elaine would work there, helping others as she faced her own challenges.
“She ended up working there and developing programs for the State Hospital,” Bourne said. “It’s such a full circle, such a great family history. ...”
Born in North Dakota with no eyesight, Elaine was about 6 years old when a physician in Minot performed cosmetic surgery on her left eye that also restored a sliver of tunnel vision about the size of a straw, Gene said. In the last seven years of her life she had no vision, he said.
But Elaine was not one to let a lack of eyesight hold her back, Gene said.
“She navigated through life as if she could see as well as anyone,” he said.
Elaine graduated from the North Dakota School for the Blind and studied for a master’s degree in social work at the University of North Dakota. She married, had two children and became a single parent. She worked as a vocational rehabilitation counselor at the North Dakota State Hospital.
And that was how she met Gene.
“I was drifting aimlessly and I wasn’t quite sure what to do with my life,” he said.
Elaine interviewed him as part of her job. After he tested at Job Service North Dakota, she directed him to work with children at the Anne Carlsen Center, which he did. Eventually, he, too, worked at the State Hospital until he retired.
They married in 1987 and were married for 33 years before her death at age 84 on June 14, 2020.
Elaine’s book is written
Elaine wrote journals for many years, Gene said. After retiring, Elaine’s long-held desire to write books rekindled. With the need to hire a new caregiver to help Elaine, who had Parkinson’s disease, Marilyn Teckenburg began working for the couple and introduced them to her daughter, Jennifer Bourne, a writer who agreed to serve as ghostwriter for Elaine.
“They had a year-and-a-half-long process of going through journals and interviews to come up with the book,” Gene said.
Bourne said all told, it was about a five-year project.
“It was so unlike any other ghostwriting experience because typically as a ghostwriter, people email you or give you typewritten work and then you go through it,” Bourne said. “But this was an interview process so I was interviewing her and writing the book from there. Her knowledge and her memory of her family history was just - it was incredible.”
Elaine would tell her the stories, Bourne would write them, read them to Elaine, and then Elaine would change or add to them.
“The most profound statement that came out of the book and it totally caught me off guard when she said it, it was early on in the process,” Bourne said. “She made the comment ‘Because of my disability I was able to lead a normal life.”’
After Elaine’s death, the remaining few tasks to complete the project for the publisher were carried out by Gene and Bourne, and the book was published by Illumify Media Global and released in January 2021.
Gene, who helped proofread the book, said he has not read the book from an emotional perspective yet.
“Elaine asked me not to read the book until a year after she had passed away because she thought it would be emotionally difficult for me to do that and I agreed with that,” he said.
Gene would like people to know about Elaine’s strength - the strength it took for her to develop a career, become a parent and raise a family. She also felt Jamestown was a community that helps inspire people, he said.
“The disabilities which we have can sometimes turn out to be our greatest strengths,” Gene said. “They may appear as weaknesses at first but the challenges in which life presents to us create opportunities in which we can turn some of those weaknesses into our strengths. I think because of Elaine’s disability of her eyesight it moved her in a direction in which she could access some of the other strengths in which she has and move forward from there.”
“Rings of a Family Tree” is available on Amazon in Kindle and softcover and at the Dakota Store, which is co-located with the AAUW Used Bookstore in Jamestown. Gene said the book has also been submitted for consideration as an upload in digital format to the National Library Service, which provides the Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) service. If accepted, people with loss of sight and learning disabilities will be able to listen to her story without charge through the BARD website, he said.
Any proceeds from sales will go to four causes as Elaine wished, Gene said: a college fund for a great-grandchild; a group in Nairobi, Kenya, that fights genital mutilation of African women; sanctuary cities; and the Bahai faith, Elaine’s faith.
“In many ways no matter how the book does in financial sales, she will make life around her all that much more richer with the message in which she has to share with the world with her book,” Gene said.