Long Prairie woman has written about 50 unpublished novels, 50 children’s stories

Erma Long, of Long Prairie, 91, has been writing and doodling for nearly her entire life. She is pictured with one of her books. Photo by Nancy Leasman

Erma Irene Long, of Long Prairie, remembers the first “grown up” book she read. She was 13. It was 1940. A friend of the family, her namesake, Irene, brought her her first birthday cake and that grown up book: Dora Deane. While she doesn’t wax poetic about the flavor of the cake, she was captivated by the book.

“It’s always been my favorite book, and it started me writing,” she said. At nearly 91, Erma has written an estimated 50 novels and an equal number of children’s stories. Mary Jane Holmes, the author of Dora Deane, published 39 novels and many short stories. Erma’s books, unfortunately for the reading public, remain squirreled away as handwritten manuscripts.

Neither Mary Jane Holmes, nor Erma Long, has yet achieved wide recognition for their work. Holmes’ books were very popular in their time. Her books sold nearly as well as Harriet Beecher Stowe, best known as the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Yet during her career, she received little acknowledgment in the literary world. Erma Long’s work has only been seen by a few relatives and friends who’ve shown interest.

It may seem unusual to compare two women, one still writing in her 10th decade and never published, and one who died in the early 20th century and was a popular author of the time. It’s likely that only circumstances and influential connections were responsible for the divergent paths.

Both women came from large families of meager means. Both lost their fathers while in their early teens. Erma dreamed of being a teacher, and Mary Jane began teaching at 13. Erma started writing at 13, as did Mary Jane, who had her first story published at 15. Both were influenced by the places and times in which they lived, and both were prolific writers.

Mary Jane, originally from Brookfield, Mass., was encouraged by her uncle, the Rev. Joel Hawes, who published his sermons and other writing. Mary Jane married, had no children, and was free to travel the world.

Erma Hurtt was born and raised in Iowa and relied on her own motivation and inclination to write. She got straight As in English, and though she lettered in basketball and brought home accolades as her softball team’s pitcher at Leigh High, the death of her father plunged the family into desperate times. As the oldest child in her family, she chopped stove wood alongside her mother to keep the family warm. When a government check for $200 allowed them to buy a small, though rat-infested house, they got busy tearing off the decrepit parts to build a home. Erma’s only memories of earning money are from the three years when she detasseled corn for 35 cents an hour, 40 cents on Sundays.

Erma has been writing stories and drawing pictures to accompany the stories for several decades. Photo by Nancy Leasman

What Erma learned from the hard years was that she could survive. And, like Mary Jane Holmes, Erma built stories from the experiences and drew on the sights and sounds of the places she lived to add depth and drama.

“Words and a story are like a ball of yarn; it just rolls out and keeps coming. It doesn’t want to stop,” Erma said of her process in putting words to paper. She has a word processor as well as a computer and printer, though she hasn’t mastered using them. She would dearly love having her manuscripts in editable form in computer files, to have them transformed from legal pads and notebooks with edits scrawled in the margins and on inserted scraps of paper, to tidy passages more easily read by possible publishers. And she would love to have them published. “I’d love to see them made into movies,” she said, imagining what some of her favorite actors (like Tom Selleck, Sam Elliot and John Wayne) could do to bring them to life.

Don’t think for a moment that Erma’s romances and mysteries are easy reading. Her just- finished novel, Jenie’s First Love, is autobiographical in its account of her relationship, at 15, with a man whose expectations were out of line with her virtues. Traumatized by his unwelcome advances, she talks with her pastor but not with her mother, who wouldn’t understand. The story departs, then, from the true account, and Jenie marries a man who brutalizes her as well as his work animals. Eventually, she escapes with her two young daughters and returns to her quest for first love.

Another of her novels, titled Stoney, is about a young girl who follows a nontraditional career path by working alongside men in an elevator. Tormented by her coworkers, who make her do things to make her want to quit, she struggles to believe in herself and prove she can be an equal.

Erma met her real-life husband when she was 17. He drove a 1932 coupe. They dated for seven months, were married for 52 years and had six children. They lived on a farm near Verndale for more than 20 years. When he died she stayed alone on the farm for three years. She had never learned to drive a car but needed to then. She got her driver’s license when she was 72. She moved to New London in 2001 and to Long Prairie in 2016. Now Erma has grandchildren, great-grandchildren and even a great-great-grandchild. Some of her grandchildren have been entertained by her children’s stories.

Erma pages through one of her books.
Photo by Nancy Leasman

“My last one is about Augustus, a little bluebird full of questions.” Another one is Goldy, about a fish dumped down a sewer by a little boy who doesn’t want to take care of it. Erma has used colored pencils to illustrate many of her children’s stories. Other titles include The Red Marble, about a magic marble; Annie the Fairy Princess; and Tattle Tale, a story about rabbits. One of her personal favorites is a Christmas story about the year Santa gets sick and an elf takes over the Christmas duties, including recruiting and naming some new reindeer. Lest you think her children’s stories are all sanguine and sweet, there’s also Squeaky about a little girl who is locked in an attic by a mean woman and finds pink squirrels for companions.

Erma writes regularly in her journal and draws on her long life to fill its pages. A recently recorded memory relates how a hen raised a family on the bookshelf in her bedroom when she was a girl – the creative advantage to growing up in a house with open windows and no screens. It’s also great material for another children’s story.

The ideas for new stories keep coming, and the ball of yarn keeps rolling on for Erma. Perhaps her prolific writing, like that of Mary Jane Holmes, will become published works.