Sweet Home Alaska by Carole Estby Dagg

sweet-home-alaska-untitledSweet Home Alaska

Carole Estby Dagg, Author

Nancy Paulsen Books, Fiction, Feb. 2, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 10 and up

Pages: 291

Themes: Great Depression, FDR New Deal Colony, Frontier and pioneer life, Alaska, Moving, Family life

Book Jacket Synopsis: Terpsichore and her family are going to be pioneers in Alaska! Times have been tough in Wisconsin during the Great Depression, and she’s eager to make a new start. Terpsichore has often dreamed about living like Laura Ingalls Wilder, but the reality of their new home is a shock. The town is still under construction, the mosquitoes are huge, and when a mouse eats her shoelace, causing her to fall on her first day of school, everyone learns the nickname she had hoped to leave behind: Trip.

Despite all this, Terpsichore falls in love with Alaska — and her sparkling, can-do spirit is a perfect match for the wilderness. When she discovers there is no library, she helps start one, and with the aid of the long hours of summer sunshine, she’s able to grow killer vegetables. With all these achievements, Terpsichore is sure she’ll be earning a new nickname in no time! The only problem is her homesick mom, who misses polite society. Terpsichore is determined to stay put, so she hatches a plan to convince her mother that Alaska can be a wonderful, civilized home…a plan that’s going to take all the love, energy, and Farmer Boy expertise she can muster.

Why I like this book:

Carole Estby Dagg writes a powerful story about the Great Depression and the 202 families that risked everything to settle Alaska’s real-life Palmer Colony in 1934. This lively and authentic story is about the harsh realities of life and work for any homesteader, let alone 11-year-old Terpsichore (Terp-sick-oh-ree) Johnson and her family. Dagg expertly explores the meaning of family relationships, friendships, hardship, pioneer cooperation, faith and home.

The setting is so realistic that readers will feel that they are living with Terpsichore a drafty tent city, traipsing through thick mud, slapping huge mosquitos, shivering through frigid weather and dealing with smelly outhouses. The plot is original and moves swiftly as the Johnson family claim and clear their land, build a log home, barn, and chicken coups, and plant their gardens. Life is harsh and full of obstacles. There is disease, loss and homesickness, but there is the midnight sun that reveals a beautiful landscape and grows very large vegetables.

Great characters make a book and Dagg has succeeded with Terpsichore, who is a brave, resilient, determined and independent narrator.  Her voice and spirit are strong. Although she may not have her twin sisters singing talent, Terpsichore makes a contribution that benefits the entire pioneer colony. She starts a library with the help of her two new friends,  Gloria and Mendel. They contact churches, scout groups, the Red Cross for books and supplies. When the colony needs a doctor and hospital, Terpsichore helps her mother send a telegram to Eleanor Roosevelt, who responds to their needs.

Sweet Home Alaska gives  readers an eye-opening glimpse into a portion of Alaska’s history they know little about.  Make sure you check out the Author’s Note about the early settlers of Palmer, Alaska, in the Matanuska Valley. She also includes some of Terpsichore’s Alaskan recipes and a list of resources. There is a lot of history packed into this novel, making it an excellent book for the classroom.

Check other Middle Grade review links on author Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.

Echo

Echo 51Onv891e1L__SX336_BO1,204,203,200_Echo

Pam Munoz Ryan, Author

Scholastic Press, Fiction, Feb. 24, 2015

Winner of the 2016 Newbery Honor

Suitable for Ages: 10-14

Themes: Harmonica, Music, Destiny, Nazi Germany, Pennsylvania orphans, Mexican-Americans, WW II, Japanese-Americans, Family relationship

Opening: “FIFTY YEARS BEFORE THE WAR TO END ALL wars, a boy played hide-and-seek with his friends in a pear orchard bordered by a dark forest.”

Synopsis: Otto runs into the forbidden forest to hide from his friends. He becomes lost and is rescued by three sisters who are imprisoned in a circle of trees by a witch’s spell. The sisters are musical and they each impart a different tune into Otto’s harmonica. He promises to help free them by carrying their harmony out into the world and passing the harmonica along to other musicians who will add their musical gift. Decades later, the harmonica graces the lives of three children who are living in horrific situations: Friedrich, who has a birthmark and doesn’t fit in 1933 Nazi Germany; Mike and his little brother Frankie, who are finding a way to survive a deplorable orphanage during the depression in Pennsylvania; and Ivy, a Mexican-American girl in California, whose brother is a soldier and her family is caring for a farm left by a Japanese family who is sent to an internment camp.

Each child is already musically talented and they become linked together as destiny places Otto’s  harmonica into their hands. They each recognize that the harmonica is powerful and like no other instrument they’ve heard before. Playing it brings each of them courage, hope and joy during dire times. The thread that binds them together comes together in a magnificent ending.

Why I like this book:

  • Pam Munoz Ryan literally sweeps me off my feet with her thrilling and brilliant storytelling.  Her writing is polished, her narrative inspires one to believe in the power of music to heal and change lives, and her plot is complex.
  • Ryan thinks outside the box as she writes her masterpiece, Echo. Although there is an element of fantasy in Echo, I am delighted that the book is a great work of historical fiction that will engage many teens. It focuses on Hitler’s Nazi Germany, the Great Depression, Mexican-American itinerate farmers, World War II, and the anti-Japanese sentiment in America.
  • The author led me to care about four very different and memorable characters in a very human way. The book begins and ends with a fairy tale with Otto’s encounter with three mysterious sisters. The novel is told in three parts, each devoted to Friedrich, Mike and Ivy’s stories. The children face dire challenges as they struggle to keep their families together: rescuing a father from prison, protecting a brother in an orphanage, and dealing with poverty, discrimination and keeping a family together. The author builds tension and momentum by leaving their stories unfinished, until the story comes full circle.
  • I am a musician, so the idea of a harmonica infused with the melodious spirits of the three sisters  captivated me and I wondered how it would play out in the story. Each of the three children add their own energy and wisdom to the harmonica as they play it and pass it along. The thread that ties their destiny together is revealed at the end in a resounding crescendo that is spellbinding and beautiful. This novel captures my heart and I will read it again.

Pam Munoz Ryan is the author of over thirty books. Her most recent novels include the award-winning The Dreamer and Esperanza Rising. She is the recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts Human and Civil Rights Award and the Virginia Hamilton Literary Award for multicultural literature. You may visit Ryan at her website.

Check other Middle Grade review links on author Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.