Sweet Home Alaska by Carole Estby Dagg - Book Review

Sweet Home Alaska
If good historical fiction is supposed to make us wonder about the people who lived during various points in history, then Sweet Home Alaska is certainly good. It had me, instantly upon closing the last page at 1:00 am, researching the Matanuska Valley Colony. I don’t have a vast knowledge of Roosevelt’s New Deal specifics, I just know that the vestiges can be seen in our public spaces and government programs.

Sweet Home Alaska paints a vivid picture of American life during the Great Depression. That life, unlike many others that I have read set during that time, was not all doom and gloom, but rather, filled with love, laughter and community - good people doing good things, families working together, neighbors helping. Drawing on the pioneer spirit of one of her favorite authors, protagonist Terpsichore Johnson, reads Laura Ingalls Wilder tales of pioneer life in preparation for her family’s move from Wisconsin to the wilderness of Alaska. Terpsichore’s little mill town in Wisconsin has been hit hard by the Great Depression and her father is an unemployed mill worker who doesn’t want to go on public assistance. His plan is to apply for a New Deal program relocating families to the Alaskan wilderness, where they will be given money and land to start a new town. Through several twists and turns, Terpsichore’s family is chosen and that’s when the story really takes off (literally and metaphorically). 

The Johnson family is well-drawn, with only Terpsichore’s mother being a bit flat in her rendering. The spirited folks and friends Terpsichore meets in Palmer, Alaska all play wonderfully realized parts in her story. Author Carole Estby Dagg paints a vivid portrait of Alaska and the hardships the settlers faced. Historical facts and figures are sprinkled throughout the tale and give the telling an even greater richness.

As with most strong historical fictions, the sense of place and time are very much a character. It all made me want to plan another trip to Alaska!

Publisher’s Synopsis: “It’s 1934, and times are tough for Trip’s family after the mill in their small Wisconsin town closes, leaving her father unemployed. Determined to provide for his family, he moves them all to Alaska to become pioneers as part of President Roosevelt’s Palmer Colony project. Trip and her family are settling in, except her mom, who balks at the lack of civilization. But Trip feels like she’s following in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s footsteps, and she hatches a plan to raise enough money for a piano to convince her musical mother that Alaska is a wonderful and cultured home. Her sights set on the cash prize at the upcoming Palmer Colony Fair, but can Trip grow the largest pumpkin possible–using all the love, energy, and Farmer Boy expertise she can muster?”
Genre: Historical Fiction
Age: 10+
Grades: Middle Grades (5-6 especially)
Lexile: 870L
Thank You to Blue Slip Media for my review copy!
Publisher: Nancy Paulsen Books (a division of Penguin Books)
Date: February 2, 2016
ISBN: 978-0399172038 

Themes: Tenacity, Attitude, Family Love, Friendship, Teamwork
Topics: Cooking, Gardening (especially pumpkins), Homesteading, Alaskan Wilderness, Building a library collection, Musical Inspiration, Literary Inspiration
Characterizations: Good representation of the era and the people living in it
Plot: Will the family do well moving to Alaska? Will the Matanuska Valley Colony thrive?
Originality: Although it certainly borrows from historical journey tales, I have not seen ANY other children's titles on the Alaskan Matanuska Valley Colony.
Believability: Great historical fiction must always ground itself in history in order for us to believe in the character's tellings. This was an excellently researched story.
Diversity: When reading historical fiction, it’s important that we frame our understandings today against a backdrop of times past. Yes, there are a few stereotypes of Alaska and its indigenous people presented by the Caucasian characters, but they would have had those stereotypes during that time. Placing diverse characters in books for the sake of tokenism is just as bad as whitewashing history. I teach my future teachers to look for tokenisms and avoid those book!  Author Carole Estby Dagg seeks to frame her story by giving an account of the decisions she made with regard to omitting  indigenous Alaskan peoples. Her thinking is presented as an author's note at the back of the book. Her thoughts would be an EXCELLENT jumping point for discussions about westward expansion, indigenous peoples rights and colonization - much more-so than any inserted token indigenous peoples.

You can buy Sweet Home Alaska HERE.

  • You can read more about the author on her website: HERE
  • You can find a great curriculum guide: HERE
  • You can read about how Laura Ingalls Wilder's books influenced ----- over at the Nerdy Bookclub:  HERE

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© 2007-2019 Dr. Cheryl Vanatti, education & reading specialist writing at www.ReadingRumpus.com