I have a special spot in my heart for fellow historical fiction writers; we’re a rare and odd breed. There aren’t too many other people you can talk to about archives and primary sources and Sanford maps (I’m getting giddy just typing those words!). That is why it is a double delight to host Carole Estby Dagg today, to celebrate the launch of the first book in her new series. I’m going to let Carole tell you all about it.
Since I’m an omnivorous reader, I occasionally even read the Wall Street Journal if that’s all that’s within reach. Last December, I leafed through the Journal and discovered an interview with Lord Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey.
Fellowes said the stories his older relatives told him about life at the turn of the century spurred “an interest in the ‘real past’ (for instance, what it was like waking up and having breakfast in 1906) as opposed to the events you find in history books.”
I put the paper down. Lord Julian Fellowes and I had something in common. Not the title. Not the money. But the love of what he called the ‘real past.’
My interest in the real past was awakened by my fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Koch. She told us stories of her childhood in the 1890’s and her memories of the Great Depression that were much more interesting than the history books. I wish I could tell her that, sixty-two years after she told those stories about how she lived during the Depression, I would write a book about those years. It wouldn’t be a book about President Roosevelt and his Fireside Chats (although he’s in Sweet Home Alaska too) but what happened to 202 families that were transported to Palmer, Alaska to become self-sufficient farmers as part of an ambitious social experiment of the New Deal.
As in any big project that had never been tried before, there were snags. A boxcar of paper towels was delivered to Palmer when they were still waiting for hammers. There was no doctor, and when a measles epidemic broke out, spread by the crowded conditions of side-by-side tents and shared outhouses, several children died. Some families were still living in tents when the first snow fell.
To get into that ‘real past,’ I read recollections of old-timers who went up with the program and started collecting stuff. I bought original Associated Press photographs of the Palmer Colony on eBay. I surrounded myself with things a child of that time would have had or at least known about: Shirley Temple paper dolls, cereal bowl, and milk pitcher, a 1936 issue of Amazing Stories, an old Sears catalog, a flour sack apron, the first Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries, Raggedy Ann, and the first two Laura Ingalls Wilder books.
I made up Terpsichore Johnson and her friends and family to combine experiences of the real Palmer pioneers, and over the next five years, my banker’s box of notes became Sweet Home Alaska. Julian Fellowes would be pleased to know that I have included descriptions of what people had for breakfast.
Carole Estby Dagg is the author of The Year We Were Famous and Sweet Home Alaska. The latter book is a Junior Library Guild selection, and is also available in an audio version produced by Listening Library and narrated by Susan Denaker.
Carole writes in Everett, Washington and in a converted woodshed on San Juan Island, where she is visited by deer and the neighbor’s goats. Learn more about her at her website.