by Sandy Brehl
Awards season is just warming up, and books released early in 2016 may have slipped from memory as the year winds down. One title that merits renewed attention when committees begin their discussions is Sweet Home Alaska by Carole Estby Dagg, released in February 2016 and reviewed here.
Carole Estby Dagg’s website tag is “Writing About History as Ordinary People Lived It.” After reading her middle-grade historical novel, I had many questions about how this fascinating subject and these characters came into her writing life. Carole responded to my interview questions to explore her approach to writing this entertaining book about a little-known episode in Alaskan history.
Sandy: Welcome to The Storied Past, Carole. You’ve been busy since the release of Sweet Home Alaska in February, including a return to Alaska for launch festivities. You’ve said that research for Sweet Home Alaska involved travel to the site where the story takes place. How did that happen?
Carole: My first trip to Palmer, the site of Sweet Home Alaska, was to see the cabin my son bought on the outskirts of town. He drove me around the valley, pointing out a barn that had survived from colony days, and dropped me off at the Palmer Library, where I could take notes from the books of recollections of old-timers who came up with their families as part of the project.
That’s Tigger, my daughter-in-law’s cat, on the log beam of my son’s first house in Palmer. Tigger died while I was writing Sweet Home Alaska, so I named Terpsichore’s cat in her honor.
Sandy: Your story begins in Wisconsin during the depression. What are your connections with Wisconsin? Why was it your choice as a setting for Terpsichore’s family origins?
Carole: I don’t have a personal connection with Wisconsin, but I wanted my fictional character, Terpsichore Johnson, to start her story in the same state as Laura Ingalls Wilder in her first book, Little House in the Big Woods. Besides setting up the parallel between Laura and Terpsichore, I could point out the changes between Laura’s “big woods” in the 1870s and the woods sixty years later that had been completely logged over by Terpsichore’s time in the 1930s.
Sandy: Music is central to this family, far beyond Terpsichore’s name. Musical talent (or a lack of it) is a driving force in her life. Where do you fall in the talent or non/talent continuum when it comes to music, and how did music become such an important element in your characters’ lives?
Carole: My mother filled our house with music. We dressed up in her long swirly skirts and beads and danced to her 78-rpm records of gypsy violins. Like Terpsichore’s mother, she was an excellent pianist, and her singing in the local USO during World War II introduced her to my dad, who wasn’t musical himself but knew a good thing when he heard it.
As a child, as I lay in bed at night, I would listen to my mother relaxing at the piano with lively ragtime music.
My two younger sisters were both musically gifted, although they later put music aside to become noted researchers and academics. While still in their teens, one sang with George Shangrow’s Seattle Chamber Singers and the other played violin in the Bellingham Symphony Orchestra.
I did not inherit my mother’s gifts. I took piano lessons for six years, but learned only enough to appreciate good playing in others. I liked to sing, but in college I was in the chorus that did not require auditions, just enthusiasm.
One of the things I remembered as a kid reading the Little House books was Pa’s fiddle and the words of songs that were popular in Laura’s family. If Terpsichore was to be a twentieth-century pioneer like her hero, Laura Ingalls, her family had to have music too.
Sandy: Many of the economic recovery programs of the 1930s are well known, but some are less so. FDR’s Matanuska Colony project in Alaska relocated 200 destitute farm families from Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan to a valley in Alaska, where each family was given 40 acres. What surprised you most about it?
Carole: That I had never heard of it!
Sandy: Neither had I! You’ve visited there and have family living there now. How does the spirit of the people living there today compare to your characters’ approach to life at that time?
Carole: My Alaska friends are not farmers, but they still have the urge to be self-reliant. They have fish camps where they catch and can, freeze, or vacuum-pack enough salmon to last their families the rest of the year. They hunt deer and caribou to fill their freezers. They have their own organic vegetable gardens and can whatever they don’t eat in season.
Sandy: Did any of the research or writing for this book reveal potential new stories to tell?
Carole: Although I have a banker’s box full of notes I did not use for Sweet Home Alaska, I feel like I’ve skimmed off the best stuff and a sequel would be a let-down. Like changing majors in college, I’m off on a completely different subject now, the Pig War in the San Juan Islands of the mid-1800s.
Sandy: You’ve written about your “immersion” approach to story and character development (cooking, sewing, and collecting artifacts related to your research). Are you a natural collector or did this emerge as you launched your writing career?
Carole: My immersion approach isn’t about the things themselves, but creating the experience of wearing things, seeing and handling things, and learning skills my characters would have learned. Like Lord Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey, I was interested in “real history” of the day-to-day lives of people in other times and places.
Sandy: Thank you, Carole, for sharing some thoughts about your approach to writing and and researching Sweet Home Alaska.
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Sweet Home Alaska, by Carole Estby Dagg
Nancy Paulsen Books • February 2016
Hardcover • 302 pages
Juvenile Fiction/Chapter Book/Ages ten and up
Depression Era • Farm life • Music • Homesteading
Cover art by Erika Steiskal
Reviewer Sandy Brehl is author of the middle-grade historical novel, Odin’s Promise, set in occupied Norway during World War II, and a sequel, Bjorn’s Gift. A member of SCBWI, she lives in Muskego, Wisconsin.