Saturday, April 16, 2016

SWEET HOME ALASKA by Carole Estby Dagg

Earlier this year, several people wrote to ask me about Carole Estby Dagg's Sweet Home Alaska, a story set in Alaska, in 1934, about the Matanuska Colony (also called the Palmer Colony). The map to the right shows you where the colony was.

Published by Penguin Random House (one of the Big Five publishers in the U.S.), Dagg's book came out in February of 2016. It is pitched at middle grade children.

Here's the synopsis for Sweet Home Alaska:
This exciting pioneering story, based on actual events, introduces readers to a fascinating chapter in American history, when FDR set up a New Deal colony in Alaska to give loans and land to families struggling during the Great Depression.
Terpsichore can’t wait to follow in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s footsteps . . . now she just has to convince her mom. It’s 1934, and times are tough for their family. To make a fresh start, Terpsichore’s father signs up for President Roosevelt’s Palmer Colony project, uprooting them from Wisconsin to become pioneers in Alaska. Their new home is a bit of a shock—it’s a town still under construction in the middle of the wilderness, where the residents live in tents and share a community outhouse. But Terpsichore’s not about to let first impressions get in the way of this grand adventure. Tackling its many unique challenges with her can-do attitude, she starts making things happen to make Alaska seem more like home. Soon, she and her family are able to start settling in and enjoying their new surroundings—everyone except her mother, that is. So, in order to stay, Terpsichore hatches a plan to convince her that it’s a wonderful—and civilized—place to live . . . a plan that’s going to take all the love, energy, and Farmer Boy expertise Terpsichore can muster.
As the synopsis indicates, the story is based on fact. President Roosevelt did create the Palmer Colony project for people to make a fresh start. The synopsis tells us that Dagg's story an "exciting pioneering" one, but anytime I see "pioneering" in the context of stories like this, I wonder about the people whose lands were being made available to those "pioneers."

In her author's note, Dagg writes (p. 290):
A notable omission in accounts I read of the Palmer Colony was reference to the people who were in Alaska for thousands of years before the colonists: the various Eskimo, Aleut, Athabaskan, and other Indian tribes. Since I married into a part-Native family, I was concerned about this omission, but finally decided not to create contacts with Native peoples if the colonists themselves did not mention them. However, I hope as many readers as possible will visit the Anchorage Museum to learn more about the original colonists of Alaska.
I'm curious about the "part-Native family." Are the people she's referring to as "part-Native" citizens of their tribal nation? Generally used, "part Native" means that someone in your ancestry was, or is, a Native person from a specific tribal nation. Quite often, though, people who use "part-Native" aren't aware that stating a Native identity goes hand-in-hand with being a citizen of that nation. This citizenship is not about being "part" Native. If you're a tribal citizen, you're a tribal citizen, period.

I'm uneasy with the phrase "the original colonists of Alaska." Alaska Natives were not "original colonists." They are the first peoples of that land. Their homelands were colonized--in this case--by the families who were part of this federal project. I anticipate some people will think that I'm being hypercritical in pointing to "original colonists" as problematic, but it is important that we pay attention to words and what they convey. If we were to accept Dagg's description of Aleut, Athabaskan, and other Indian tribes as "original colonists" we start down a slope that says it wasn't their homeland from the start. That it belonged to... nobody, and therefore, any rights they have to that land can be dismissed.

And, Dagg's suggestion that readers visit the Anchorage Museum... It makes me wonder if she had Native readers in mind. She was probably thinking of white kids.

An appropriate aside: Not long ago I read a spot-on comic by Ricardo Caté of Kewa (Santo Domingo) Pueblo. He has been doing Without Reservations for several years. The one I'm thinking of is of a Native kid in a museum asking something like "what kind of a field trip is this?! We have all this stuff at home." Biting, and brilliant, too.

Back to Dagg's book...

Who were the "pioneers" involved with the Palmer Project? People who were living in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota in 1934. The Palmer Museum has this info:
To be chosen from the states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, only "honest-to-God" farmers, couples between the ages of 25 and 40 with Scandinavian backgrounds would be considered. In exchange for a $3,000, 30-year loan, each family would be given a 40-acre tract of land, a house, a barn, a well, and an out-building. Those families that chose tracts with poor soil conditions and hilly landscape were given 80 acres. In all 203 families were chosen for the colony.
Dagg's character, Trip (short for Terpsichore), and her family are one of those families. When Dagg and her sisters learn about the plan to move there, here's what they say (p. 5)
“I'm not living in an igloo!" That was Cally, shaking her head in horror, which made her ringlets bob. “I’m not eating whale blubber!” That was Polly. Her ringlets bobbed too.
They are, in short, putting forth information they hold about Alaska Native homes and foods, and, they're rejecting it. That passage tells us that, although Dagg chose not to create Native people for her characters to interact with, she didn't leave Native peoples out altogether. She introduced stereotypes, but left them intact. That was an opportunity for her to push back on them, but she didn't. Indeed, if she'd had Native peoples in mind as she developed this book, she could have created Native characters who could, in fact, push back on the information that Cally and Polly have in their heads. What she did do, is have Trip's dad say that they're not going to the Arctic Circle, and that the Matanuska Valley is much like northern Wisconsin. This, I assume, is sufficient to tell the girls that they won't be living in an igloo or eating whale blubber, but it leaves exotic ideas about Alaska Natives intact.

Actually getting to Alaska means getting there by ship. As they're boarding, someone sings a song Trip recognizes, but they change the lyrics (p. 44):
Terpsichore recognized the tune. It was Gene Autry’s version of “Springtime in the Rockies,” but they had changed the words. Terpsichore laughed along with the crowd at the new words: “When it’s springtime in Alaska and it’s ninety-nine below . . . Where the berries grow like pumpkins and a cabbage fills a truck . . . We want to make a new start somewhere without delay. So, here we are, Alaska, AND WE HAVE COME TO STAY!”
Curious about the song, I looked it up and so far didn't find those lyrics. The first line is easy to find but the rest, I think, is Dagg's own writing. Reading the words "we have come to stay" may seem jovial and innocuous to some, but to me, they're pretty aggressive. Music is a big part of Sweet Home Alaska. The family has a tough go of it once they're there, but at the end, they sing "Home Sweet Home." They're there to stay. Again, this may seem innocuous, but ending with that song tells readers that, indeed, they were there "TO STAY."

Though a lot of people are going to love Dagg's book and its echoes of Little House, I think it is worse than Little House because it was written in the last few years. Dagg's editor is Nancy Paulsen. The creation, publication, and marketing of Sweet Home Alaska tells us that writers like Dagg, and editors like Nancy Paulsen, have a long way to go.

I do not recommend Sweet Home Alaska. 

And, I do not recommend The Smell of Other People's Houses, either.

Note (April 18, 2016): Thank you, anon, for letting me know that, partway thru the review, I had spelled the author's name incorrectly (as Dabb instead of Dagg). I've corrected those errors.


Cynthia Nugent said...

Insightful and informative review. thank you.
Cynthia Nugent, MA children's lit, UBC

Erin in Alaska said...

Thanks for sharing. I am going to look into this one. My initial, knee-jerk reaction is a bit grumpy. Yes, there is a museum in Anchorage that presents historical information about Alaska's Native communities, but there there is also a very contemporary and AMAZING resource in the Alaska Native Heritage Center. Bonus, there is a free shuttle from the museum to take people there.

Anonymous said...

Is the author'd last name Dabb or Dagg? It changes midway through your review.

Anonymous said...

I understand that only those who have tribal membership may identify themselves as citizens of a tribe or nation. However, I live in an area in which many people really do have native heritage without having a card to prove it. And many with a card to prove it may have a small quantum of blood, but still have a CDIB card. I question whether it is fair to dismiss all those who are descended from native persons and take pride in that heritage as "not really" of that heritage on the basis of whether they hold a card or not. What about people who genuinely have an interest in rediscovering and honoring their ancestor's culture? Should they be marginalized?

Again, I understand that the citizenship is a different issue. However, many people identify as "Italian" or "Lebanese" or some other culture without having citizenship in their countries of origin.

Debbie Reese said...

Some tribal nations issue cards, some don't.

Blood quantum doesn't matter. A tribe makes decisions about enrollment. Some, for example, require that the person participate in tribal activity, and others do not.

Anyone with a family story of Native ancestry can, of course, take pride in that, but the pride in that ancestry ought to be based on real knowledge rather than romantic ideas of what Native people were/are. That discovery you're talking about is important. And can be done.

One of my colleagues did a terrific Storify on this very subject:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for that thoughtful answer.

Carole Estby Dagg said...

To clarify my use of part-Native, my husband's mother was Yupik Eskimo who was sent from Alaska to Oregon to the Chemawa Indian school and his father was Swedish. My husband is a shareholder in Cook Inlet Region and served on the board of his native region for thirty years. My son (who was active in Native Americans at Dartmouth) has served on the board for ten years. Although my family honors its Native heritage, they also honor its Scandinavian heritage; therefore, I used the term part-Native.

A note on the song lyrics: it is cited in appendix F in We Shall be Remembered by Evangeline Atwood.

Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

Debbie Reese said...

Thanks, Carole, for the info on why you use part-Native. I understand, but it is important to acknowledge that most people don't realize that Native Nations are nations who determine citizens, etc.

The educational system has done a poor job of teaching about our nationhood. That leads to ignorance that allows people to dismiss the entire idea out-of-hand when something like the Indian Child Welfare Act is being discussed.