How Laura Ingalls Wilder Influenced Sweet Home Alaska by Carole Estby Dagg
When I realized that the first two Little House books came out about the time that a New Deal program sent kids in two hundred and two families north to Alaska, I wondered: Had any of those children read Wilder’s books? Were they excited about the chance to be 20th-century pioneers? I decided that at least one girl would be living her dream to be a pioneer like Laura, and that girl would be Terpsichore Johnson from Laura’s home state of Wisconsin. She would take her two Wilder books with her to give her advice on living like they did two generations ago.
I pay homage to the Little House books, Terpsichore style, throughout Sweet Home Alaska. Terpsichore has lots of music in her family, but the music comes from her mother and sisters instead of Laura’s Pa and his fiddle. Terpsichore faces a windstorm to bring back pumpkin to feed her hungry family, analogous to when Almanzo braved a blizzard to bring back wheat to save starving families in The Long Winter.
Sweet Home Alaska describes pioneer skills, but those important to Alaskans, like catching and canning salmon. Terpsichore uses Almanzo’s method of growing a giant pumpkin, but for her own reasons, and with different challenges. She even names her biggest pumpkins Laura and Almanzo.
One of the most interesting aspects about referencing Wilder was comparing Wilder’s experience as a pioneer in the 1870’s s to Terpsichore’s experience sixty years later in the mid-1930’s. For instance, in Laura’s time, Wisconsin was still thick with trees. By the 1930’s, logging had left nothing but stumps.
Technology made advances Laura could never have imagined – trains that took Terpsichore across the country in a few days and an airplane that brought Will Rogers and Wiley Post to Palmer to report on the progress of the project.
Perhaps the biggest advance, though, was in how connected Terpsichore was to the outside world compared to Laura. Terpsichore could hear President Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats on the radio, watch movie stars on the screen, and listen to musicians on 78 records. Journalists quickly transmitted photographs of the colony to newspapers across the country.
The Little House influence also extended to the cover of Sweet Home Alaska. I told the editor how much I loved the Garth Williams wrap-around covers on the Little House books that created a scene a reader could imagine herself into. Erika Steiskal took that suggestion to heart, painting Terpsichore into the setting of her new home.
Carole Estby Dagg was born in Kansas City, Missouri, and has lived in Washington, Idaho, and British Columbia. She has degrees in sociology, library science, and accounting. She spends most of her time writing and reading, but her real-life adventures include tiptoeing through King Tut’s tomb, sandboarding the dunes of western Australia, riding a camel among the Great Pyramids, paddling with Manta rays in Moorea, and smelling the penguins in the Falkland Islands. She is married with two children, two grandchildren. Her son lives in Palmer Alaska, and that is what inspired her to write this story. You can find her online at http://caroleestbydagg.com/ and on Twitter as @CaroleDagg.