Terpsichore Johnson’s family is just one of many families suffering through the American Great Depression in 1934. When the local mill in their Wisconsin town closed, the family relied on whatever they could grow in order to eat, and Terpsichore can make darn near anything out of a pumpkin. Her father is determined to take care of his family, and suggests taking President Franklin D. Roosevelt up on his New Deal offer: become an Alaskan pioneer in his Palmer Colony project! Terpsichore is at once unsure and excited: it’s a chance to be a pioneer, just like her hero, Laura Ingalls Wilder, but it’s so far from everyone and everything she knows. The family decides to give it a year, and they’re off. Life isn’t easy for that first group of colonists: there’s illness, and schedule and materials mismanagement leave a lot of folks living in tents when they should have had homes built, but slowly and surely, life in Alaska starts to grow on the Johnson family, except for Terpsichore’s mother. Can Terpsichore’s prize pumpkin win enough money at the Palmer Colony Fair so she can buy her mother a gift that will make her agree to stay?
I loved this book! Sweet Home Alaska is about the 1935 Matanuska Colony; one of FDR’s New Deal projects that would create jobs, investment in the country and infrastructure, and colonize part of U.S.-owned Alaska, which wasn’t a state just yet. The parallels between Sweet Home Alaska and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series are wonderful, and a good readalike for readers who enjoy the Wilder books, and Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark House books. (There are no interactions between the mostly white Palmer colonists and indigenous people in Sweet Home Alaska; a point discussed in the author notes at the end of the book.) Terpsichore – pronounced Terp-sick-oh-ree, named for the muse of dancing – even refers to Wilder’s book, Farmer Boy, when growing her pumpkin to show at the Palmer Colony Fair.
The book takes a deeper look into a moment in history I haven’t yet seen captured in historical fiction. While it takes place during the Great Depression, this is new territory, and worth the read. Terpsichore is the eldest child, with twin younger sisters and an infant brother, and handles much of the housework to help her mother out. She’s smart, enterprising, and determined. She and the two friends she makes in Palmer – Gloria, named for actress Gloria Swanson, and Mendel, named for the scientist who studied genetics – work together to start up a colony library and find ways to raise money for books and supplies. She experiences frustration, but always bounces back, stronger than before. The writing just flows from page to page, with adventure, emotion, and excitement throughout. There are wonderful mini-plots throughout, including the telegram to Eleanor Roosevelt that got our President’s attention; a visit from Will Rogers; and a Palmer resident with interesting ties to Terpsichore’s family. I loved spending time with this group.
An author’s note and further reading are included, and really make this a solid choice for kids seeking out historical fiction. There are also some recipes, including one for jellied moose nose. You know you’re curious.
Sweet Home Alaska was originally published in 2016, but I somehow missed it. Glad my friend Barbara over at Blue Slip Media told me I needed to read it now! Check out the free, downloadable discussion and activity guide, and find out about author visits, Skype visits, and contact info (including how to get an autographed bookmark!) at the author’s website.