Originally shared 2016 on The Storied Past.
When awards season is just warming up, some books released earlier may slip from memory as the year winds down. One title (from 2016) that merits renewed attention when committees begin their discussions is Sweet Home Alaska, released in February, 2016 and reviewed below this interview.
Carole Estby Dagg is the author of SWEET HOME ALASKA. Her website tag is “Writing About History as Ordinary People Lived It.” After reading and reviewing this book I had many questions about how this subject and these characters came into her writing life. Carole responded to my interview questions and explored her approach to writing this entertaining book about obscure Alaskan history.
SB: Welcome, Carole. You’ve been busy since the release of SWEET HOME ALASKA in February, including a return to Alaska for some launch festivities. You’ve said that research for SWEET HOME ALASKA involved travel. How did that approach apply to this book?
CED: 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.
Tigger is my daughter-in-law’s cat, but Tigger died while I was writing SWEET HOME ALASKA, so I named Terpsichore’s cat in her honor.
SB: 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?
CED: 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’ and the woods sixty years later that had been completely logged over by Terpsichore’s time.
SB: 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?
CED: My mother filled our house with music. We dressed up in her long swirly skirts and beads and danced to her 78 records of gypsy violins. Like Terpsichore’s mother, she was an excellent pianist and her singing in the local USO during WWII introduced her to my dad, who wasn’t musical himself but knew a good thing when he heard it. As I lay in bed at night, I listened to my mother relaxing at the piano with lively ragtime music.
Although they later put music aside to become noted researchers and academics, my two younger sisters were both musically gifted. 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.
SB: Many of the economic recovery programs of the 1930’s are well known. FDR’s Matanuska, Alaska was intended to relocate destitute farm families to a community in Alaska with a plan to provide jobs for others who would help build and maintain that new community. What surprised you most about it?
CED: That I had never heard of it!
SB: 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?
CED: 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.
SB: 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.
CED: I wasn’t so much a collector of things (with the exception of books) but of experiences. When I went through my Egyptology phase at about Terpsichore’s age, I talked my father into taking me to a museum where I could see a real mummy in its sarcophagus. As an adult, I climbed on the back of a camel to ride among the great pyramids, crept through King Tut’s tomb, and visited Cairo to see the King Tut treasures.
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.
SB: Did any of the research or writing for this book reveal potential new stories to tell?
CED: 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-1800’s.
SB: Thank you, Carole, for sharing your approach to this book, and your research. I appreciate you taking time from your writing and travels to share your personal stories about SWEET HOME ALASKA. As various organizations consider outstanding middle grade novels for 2016 awards, I certainly expect Sweet Home Alaska to be receiving lots of attention.
Here’s what I wrote about this historical novel on GOODREADS.
This story begins in depression-era Wisconsin but moves quickly to a “big dreams” adventure and challenge in Alaska. From the moment we meet her, Terpsichore (Terp-SICK-uh ree) let’s readers know what she thinks, cares about, and fears. She personifies the pre-teen tension between exuberant confidence and anxious helplessness.
This would pair well with Gayle Rosengren’s WHAT THE MOON SAID, another depression era story with a Wisconsin setting but an entirely different story arc. A discussion of both stories, main characters, and circumstances would open doors to deep understanding of the economic and political realities of America in the 1930s.
Update on this post, as of July, 2019: SWEET HOME ALASKA received awards from Junior Library Guild for the print novel and for the audio book. To learn even more about it, including teaching resources, check this link at TeachingBooks.net.