Monday, July 29, 2019

MG Historical Fiction review of Sweet Home Alaska By Carole Estby Dagg

25489429. sy475 Sweet Home Alaska by Carole Estby Dagg
Format:  Paperback
Publisher:  Puffin Books 
Number of Pages:  304
Published:  July 16th, 2019 (paperback)
Source:  Publisher via Blue Slip Media 

Opening Lines: "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."  

It's 1934 and the mill in Little Bear Lake, Wisconsin has closed.  Work has become scarce and Pop is concerned about being able to put food on the table.  Some of Terpsichore's neighbors have had to go on relief, sell off their valuables or even take charity from relatives, but Pop is determined to go it alone.   Then he hears of a New Deal Project that President Roosevelt is starting,  Pop is very excited about the prospect, but Mother is reluctant to leave behind her piano and electricity to rough it in Alaska.  However, she eventually agrees to give it one year.  Hoping to make a new start, the family sets out for Palmer, Alaska, but once they arrive circumstances are not what they thought.  For one, they will be living in tents until their house is built and most of the town is still under construction.  There's not even a school, church or hospital staff yet.  Despite all of this, Terpsichore loves her new home and is eager to develop its first library, but convincing Mother to stay is her next biggest challenge.

Sweet Home Alaska takes place shortly after the Great Depression just as President Roosevelt announced his New Deal and the Matanuska Colony project, a homesteading endeavor where families received a parcel of land in Palmer, Alaska to build a home and farm.  The story follows the Johnson family over the course of about a year as they settle into their new community.   In places, this really has the feel of the Little House on the Prarie books, which Terpsichore even makes references to during the story.  It's a glimpse into a different historical time period of out-houses, cooking without electricity, canning salmon and developing a town from the ground up.  There's the day to day musings of life in Palmer and the worry as winter gets closer and the reality that their house needs to be finished before the snow comes.  Terpsichore's mother is not happy about the move, she's very negative about the town and all of the things she perceives it's lacking.  Living in a tent puts a strain on her, whereas the rest of the family seems to be settling in just fine.  Terpsichore is excited about the potential for making her very own library and loves cataloging and checking out her books.  Together with some of her new friends she develops a Library Action Committee and sets out to raise money to purchase more books and magazines.  Overall there aren't any dramatic moments, but lots of positive messaging of children who are helpful, resourceful and a lovely sense of community.  

Life for the family in Alaska does include some initial hardships like the mosquitoes, horseflies, mud and long days of sunlight.  Much of the land where their house was to be built is forested, which took large crews and equipment to clear.  There are some details about the wildflowers found in Alaska like the spiky lupine, bluebells, and firewood blossoms, and mountain ranges surrounding the town but surprisingly absent are any interactions with moose, bear or any of the birds found in Alaska.  I would have also loved some interactions with the snow and cold winters and some explorations/playing outdoors, but truthfully the kids were way too busy for that.  However, I did learn how large some of their vegetables grow in Alaska, especially Terpsichore's pumpkins.  Who knew?  

There's an author note at the end explaining the initial inspiration for the story, a 1930's house her son purchased in Palmer, Alaska and a detailed resource list of some of the sources she used.  There are even recipes for the pumpkin oatmeal cookies and jellied moose nose mentioned in the story.  I also appreciated that the author's note explained her reasoning for not including interactions between the indigenous Alaskan people and the homesteaders, how in researching the topic she was unable to find any materials or references to their interactions and chose then not to include any interactions.  There's also a Curriculum Guide at Carole Estby Dagg's website with plenty of discussion questions and activities to incorporate into the classroom.  Overall this is a very lovely immersion into a historical time period for which I didn't know very much, I especially enjoyed the inclusion of pieces of FDR's Fireside chat and learning of Will Rodgers trip to Palmer.  A unique pioneering story.  



  1. Brenda, thank you for the detailed and thoughtful review! I enjoyed the research - especially reading oral histories of old-timers who moved up to Alaska as kids and finding photographs of the early days of Palmer.

    1. I'm familiar with Eagle River and Anchorage, but have yet to make it to Palmer myself. I really liked your Curriculum Guide.

  2. This sounds like an interesting story. I really enjoy HF and will add this to my list to check out. I can imagine there would be some real struggles moving to Alaska at that time. Thanks for sharing and best of luck to Carole.