Sweet Home Alaska – A Review of a New Deal-Era Novel

Sweet Home Alaska, by Carole Estby Dagg (Nancy Paulsen Books, 2016)

(Reviewed by Sandy Brehl)

The chapter titles of Sweet Home Alaska are early indicators of the complexity and wry humor in this delightful novel. Chapter One, “Terpsichore Johnson Cooks Dinner,” begins in November 1934 in Little Bear Lake, Wisconsin, where single-minded but musically-challenged “Trip” is as much at odds with herself as she is with the expectations of her loving family.

Some 50 short chapters later, Terpsichore (Terp-SICK-oh-ree) has led readers on a journey to discover the ups and downs of a new life in Palmer, Alaska. Why Alaska? That’s where her family moves, with more than 200 other families, to participate in FDR’s Depression-busting New Deal program to transform wilderness into homesteads and unemployed workers into self-sufficient farmers.

The trials and challenges the 11-year-old girl faces along the way are daunting but never destroy her conviction that every problem has a solution, and it’s up to her to find it. Along the way Terpsichore reveals her love of libraries and Little House books, gardening and cooking, facts, fame, and family.

 

Sweet Home Alaska, by Carole Estby Dagg

The expression “coming-of-age story” is applied to many books, but Terpsichore’s tribulations and triumphs are more of a “coming-into-her-own” story. From one engaging chapter to the next, from “Let Them Eat Worms” to “Popcorn Wars” to” The Great Weigh-In,” Terpsichore (do not call her Trip!) combines humor, intelligence, frustration, and friendships with her inner resources to succeed in ingenious pioneering pursuits.

Dagg weaves historic characters, tidbits, and curiosities into the fiber of Terpsichore’s life in ways that enhance rather than distract from a thoroughly entertaining tale.

Sweet Home Alaska is a good companion read with another depression-era novel involving Wisconsin, Gayle Rosengren’s What the Moon Said. The trajectories of the two stories lead to very different results, but comparisons are abundant in bristly family dynamics, unexpected friendships, and frank portrayals of the realities of the depression.

Sweet Home Alaska, by Carole Estby Dagg
Nancy Paulsen Books • February 2016
Hardcover • 302 pages
Juvenile Fiction/Chapter Book/Ages ten and up
ISBN 0399172033
Depression Era • Moving • Farm life
Little House Books • Music • Friendship • Homesteading

Reviewer Sandy Brehl is author of the middle-grade historical novel, Odin’s Promise, set in occupied Norway during World War II, and is working on a sequel, Bjorn’s Gift, scheduled for released early summer 2016. A member of SCBWI, she lives in Muskego, Wisconsin.

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2 Comments

  1. What a thoughtful review. One of the things I loved, too, was the way the story was episodic, which is unusual in modern kidlit. The chapter titles reflect that. I’m so glad this wonderful story is getting so much attention!

  2. And there’s a interview with author Carole Estby Dagg here: https://thestoriedpast.org/carole-estby-dagg-interview/

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