Sweet Home Alaska by Carole Estby Dagg. Penguin, February 2016, 296 pages
Reading Level: Middle Grades, ages 10-12
Recommended for: ages 10-14
Bottom Line: An 11-year-old discovers the pioneering spirit in the last frontier, in this entertaining historical adventure that echoes Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Terpsichore Johnson’s family is down to their last pumpkin. Mr. Johnson has lost his job at the mill but refuses to go on government relief like so many other depression-era households. Still, when President Roosevelt offers land and loans to anyone willing to settle in Alaska, Father takes him up on the offer. Mother is less enthusiastic, though she agrees to give the experiment one year before moving back to Wisconsin. With a band of other hardy settlers, the Johnsons set sail for Palmer, Alaska, which turns out to be a clearing full of stumps—no water, no houses, no medical service (all of which were promised, but that’s government efficiency for you). Mother is ready to bail from Day 1, but the Last Frontier grows on Terpsichore—she just has to figure out a way to persuade Mother, and come up with one more recipe for moose.
Terpsichore is a character readers can admire as well as relate to. Though not blessed with flashy gifts like her twin Shirley-Temple-lookalike sisters, she’s nonetheless a masterful cook and a persistent goal-setter and striver. The story, based on historical fact, is somewhat lacking in tension but gives respectful (not slavish) homage to the Little House books. Terpsichore even names her prize pumpkins Laura and Almanzo. Of the other characters, Mendel Theodore Peterson stands out for his verbal flourishes. Though not as gripping as Dagg’s YA novel, The Year We Were Famous, Sweet Home reflects much of the same plucky, can-do spirit. In spite of some government glitches (the reality didn’t meet the promises), FDR gets respectful treatment and Eleanor is a hero. Older kids could read The Forgotten Man for more perspective on the Depression.
Cautions: character issues (Terpsichore uses deception to qualify her family for the program)
Overall rating: 4
Categories: Middle Grades, Historical Fiction, Character Qualities
Cover image from Barnes & Noble