Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Monday, February 1, 2016

To The North

Every single person living then was affected.  (The effects have lasted for generations.)  By 1935 it caused untimely deaths, loss of businesses and employment, and large-scale fear.  The Great Depression exacted a cost of unparalleled economic scale taking decades for recovery.

The loss of income meant people were unable to keep their homes, clothe themselves or their children and maintain a healthy diet.  In 1935 as part of a New Deal program initiated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt more than two hundred families on relief from the states of Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin were selected to participate in The Matanuska Colony in Palmer, Alaska.  Sweet Home Alaska (Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House L.L.C., February 2, 2016) written by Carole Estby Dagg captivates reader at every page turn with the struggles and triumphs of the Johnson family through the voice of eleven-year-old Terpsichore.

Chapter 1
Terpsichore Johnson Cooks Dinner
November, 1934---Little Bear Lake, Wisconsin

It was because Terpsichore was the only unmusical Johnson that she dragged a hatchet across the yard toward a pumpkin as big as a pickle barrel.  She stumbled over an icy hillock of mud where her mother's roses had been uprooted to make way for potatoes.

After an exclamation and a promise during a frustrating piano lesson Terpsichore finds herself cooking dinner day after day for her two sisters, baby Matthew and her parents.  All they have left to eat is pumpkin and this creative young woman whips up more delicious meals than you would think possible.  Their father has lost his job at the sawmill as an accountant and their mother has few piano students left.  Mr. Johnson refuses to apply for assistance or move to Madison to live with Mrs. Johnson's mother.

When word of The Matanuska Colony plan is announced Mr. Johnson goes to apply only to discover you have to be on relief to qualify.  As the winter gets harder and harder for the family, Mrs. Johnson decides to trade her piano for food credit at the grocery store.  When Terpsichore's best friend Eileen's family is sure to leave for Alaska, she hatches a daring plan.  To her dismay it completely backfires!

With only two days to plan and pack, the Johnson family is destined to leave for Palmer, Alaska. Each family receives a loan of three thousand dollars, forty acres of land and is allowed to take only a ton of possessions.  Mrs. Johnson is not happy making Mr. Johnson promise to return to Wisconsin if in sixteen months they have not succeeded.  

Traveling on land by train and on sea aboard a ship over the turbulent waters of the Gulf of Alaska, the Johnsons arrive in Palmer only to discover the promised tents, their residences until homes can be built, are not available.  This is only the beginning of the troubles experienced by Terpsichore, her family and the other pioneers.  Swarms of mosquitoes have them hurrying from place to place and wearing specially designed headgear,  shared two-holer outhouses, wood and coal burning stoves for heat and cooking, a mess hall for eating for those without tents, the lack of enough hammers for the CCC employees, and overcrowded classrooms are some of the problems they endure.

Terpsichore and her new friends, Gloria and Mendel, forge a companionship much as the adults in the community, individual successes happen with the support of others.  The Library Action Committee, a telegram to Mrs. Roosevelt, Will Rogers, Wiley Post, winter snow and howling winds, the appearance of a kindly old-timer with a secret, the first upcoming autumn fair and Terpsichore's final big plan will keep readers flipping pages as fast as they can. Hardships can be handled with hope and the can-do attitude of one gal who won't give up.

One of the first things you notice about this title is the personalities of the characters.  Carole Estby Dagg creates characters, Terpsichore (Trip and Tipper), her twin sisters, Polly (Polyhymnia) and Cally (Calliope), little brother Matthew, Mother and Father, Grandmother, Gloria, and Mendel and their parents, Mr. Crawford and other community members who are as compelling as the people you might meet in everyday life.  Placing them within this historical context through Terpsichore's thoughts and the dialogue between the real (Dagg effortlessly weaves historic figures into the narrative.) and imagined people is like stepping back in time, experiencing what they do as if it's happening right before your eyes.

Through her painstaking research Dagg paints vivid pictures of the landscape as well as detailed accounts of daily life.  We see the grandeur of the mountain ranges, the flora and fauna, and the opportunities for farming.  We are exposed to the sickness and fright endured during the sea crossing, the lack of privacy in the cramped living conditions, the act of caring for a child still in diapers, a community without a hospital, doctors and nurses, a library or churches.  We come to understand these people begin equally with nothing, building a community in the wilderness.

One other high point is the mention of current news (some of it listened to on a radio), music and literature during this time period.  Terpsichore takes to heart one of President Roosevelt's Fireside Chats using it to boost her spirits.  She also uses what she has read in The Little House on the Prairie and Farmer Boy to assist her in accomplishing her goals.  I should also mention the pets, a cat named Tigger and a dog named Togo, who accompany Terpsichore and Mendel to Palmer.   Here are some sample passages.

Cutting library hours again?  Whose crazy idea was that?  The library was one of the most popular places in town, especially after the mill closed.  People couldn't afford the movies or the roller-skating barn, but they could come to story hour and check out books for free.  Even folks who didn't read much huddled around the heat registers at the library.  Terpsichore returned her books through the slot.  The hollow clunk they made as they hit the bin inside was as hollow as her heart.

"Mendel Theodore Peterson," he said, holding out a hand.  
Terpsichore didn't let go of the windowsill to shake his hand. "Terpsichore Elizabeth Johnson."  That would be one advantage of the move.  In Alaska she could reinvent herself and finally escape her horrible nickname. "Terpsichore," she said. "As in---"
"I know, I know, the Muse of Dance," he said.
Terpsichore narrowed her eyes.  "How did you know that?"
Mendel smirked, "You're not the only kid on this ship who knows Greek mythology.  And my name, Mendel, is for---"
"The composer Mendelssohn?" Terpsichore wanted to show he wasn't the only one who knew his composers.
"No," he said. "Gregor Mendel, the guy with the twenty-nine thousand pea plants.  The guy who figured out how two parents with brown eyes could have a blue-eyed baby."
"I knew that," Terpsichore said.  "The reason I guessed Mendelssohn first is that my mother used to teach piano."
And my mother used to teach botany, so I got stuck with 'Mendel.' Anyway, since I read up on sea travel in the library before I left, I've been able to minimize seasickness.  At least I didn't toss my cookies."
"Toss your cookies?"
"Puke, vomit, upchuck, retch, heave, spit up, spew up, disgorge, be sick to one's stomach, be nauseated, return your breakfast, or blow your lunch."
"Stop!" Terpsichore said. "Just the words..." Who ever knew there were so many ways to say throwing up?  All the same, she couldn't quite control the grin that quivered at the corners of her mouth.

Later that week, as the wind shrieked through spruce trees and bare limbs of cottonwoods, Terpsichore huddled in her cot and pulled the blankets up over her ears, trying to muffle the sound.  Moments later, Tigger led her two new kittens under Terpsichore's blankets.  Terpsichore wished she had ten more cats to keep her warm.
The tent canvas whipped in the howling wind that threatened to fly them all away to Oz, like Dorothy and Toto.  Outside, the washtub clanged and rattled across the plowed field.  Wind thrust itself under the narrow space between the wood platform and canvas walls and whipped Matthew's drying diapers off the clothesline. 
At a crack like a gunshot, Matthew stood in his crib and howled.
"What's that?" Cally and Polly whimpered.
"Probably a tree that couldn't stand up to the wind," Pop said.
Terpsichore coughed and pulled the blankets over her head.  She flinched each time a tree snapped.  She didn't think any trees were close enough to hit the tent and crush them, but she wasn't sure.

Sweet Home Alaska written by Carole Estby Dagg is an engaging portrait of the settling of the Matanuska Colony in Palmer, Alaska, an event rarely depicted in American history classrooms.  This is one of the reasons readers will enjoy this book.  It acquaints them with something they might not know through the eyes of people like them.  It's inspirational and hopeful; two things as important today as they were then.  Short chapters with compelling closing sentences will keep them venturing to the next episode until the heartwarming conclusion.  Author notes, resources, recipes, and the lyrics for When It's Springtime in Alaska are placed at the close of the book.

Please visit Carole Estby Dagg's website to learn more about her and her other books.  She includes fascinating pages about this title as well as a discussion guide.  If you would like to know how to pronounce her name and the history about it, go to TeachingBooks.net.  More information about this portion of history can be found at the Alaska Rural Rehabilitation Corporation site, the National Association of Rural Rehabilitation Corporations, Explore North, and Alaska's Digital Archives.

Update:  February 3, 2016 Carole Estby Dagg wrote a post about this title at the Nerdy Book Club.

Update:  February 5, 2016 Carole Estby Dagg is interviewed at Margie's Must Reads.


  1. This book sounds like a great middle great read!

    1. It really is a great middle grade historical fiction, Jessica. I was glued to this book for six hours.

  2. Thank you so much for your insightful review!

    1. You are welcome, Carole. I thank you for writing this book. It inspired me to immediately start researching this time period. Your characters are marvelous.

  3. I love when someone writes about a book that tells a part of history that I've never heard of before. This sounds so interesting.

    1. I believe you are really going to enjoy it Catherine. It really gets you thinking about all the other things we might not know about yet.