Friday, March 18, 2016

Sweet Home Alaska by Carole Estby Dagg

Sweet Home Alaska by Carole Estby Dagg
Rating: 5 stars

Nancy Paulsen Books

We're moving West this summer--nearly as West as one can move when you live in Virginia. We're moving to Washington State. As a Seattle University alum and a fan of the great Pacific Northwest, I'm pretty excited. To prepare or just get excited for the move, I'm reading books about or by authors from the "other" side of the country.

And that goal led me straight to Sweet Home Alaska.

Carole Estby Dagg writes out of Everett, Washington, a town an hour or so north of Seattle, and the city in which my husband will work. When our family was out in Washington to visit schools and the area in general, Mrs. Dagg was speaking at a local bookstore to promote Sweet Home Alaska, her just-released second book. I didn't go, but the book piqued my interest and I requested it from our local library.

The book is about a girl who does the same thing my kids will do this summer: she moves about as far away as possible.

Terpsichore's family start the story in Wisconsin during the Great Depression. Like many families during that era, times were tough. Her father loses his job at the mill. Her mother sells her beloved piano for money. Terpsichore makes a million things out of pumpkin because pumpkin is what they've got to eat.

But they have one big chance: a move for a better life. Thanks to a New Deal Pioneer program set up by Franklin D. Roosevelt, Terpsichore's family has the opportunity to move to faraway Alaska and receive land from the government. Better yet, they get a new start on life.

With a little finagling, their family is selected to go. There's a string attached to the adventure: Mother is not happy about it, and she insists that after one year she gets to decide if they remain in Alaska or return to Wisconsin to live with her (straight-laced, well-off) mother.

With that tension set in the story, the family sets off. First, they take a train across the country to Seattle, then head north on a boat. They reach Palmer, Alaska, and receive their plot of land. The challenges they meet are realistic and eye-opening--the bugs and living conditions smack them in the face, but they all prove to have the necessary pluck to keep going.

Terpsichore is determined to remain optimistic about Alaska and about changing her mother's mind, but she jumps right in to make Palmer what she wants, too. She misses her library from home, and decides to start her own. She writes letters to people and organizations back in the lower 48 with a plea to "help start the pioneer library" and she gets boxes of books--the first from her wealthy grandmother, including one book that sets another mystery in motion. She's the first librarian in the "pioneer library."

The book is very well done--I love how it was inspired by the author's son's move to Palmer, Alaska. A little digging into the town's history and Dagg knew there was a story (or two! or more!) that could be made from the plucky people who dared to move so far away all they knew. Terpsichore is a great little hero--she jumps right into her community and aims to make it a better place. She misses home and has her own friendship woes, but she is exactly the kind of character you want your child to read about and love.

Fingers crossed that my own children remain optimistic about their first big move in life and that they have some of Terpsichore's moxie, cheerfulness, and interest in a world new to them!

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