Friday, March 01, 2013

Review: My One Square Inch of Alaska

I was talking to Penguin editors at ALA Midwinter, looking for a good adult read for my post-Newbery life and perhaps complaining about Alaska being misrepresented in books. The editor gave me this book.

My One Square Inch of Alaska by Sharon Short, Plume/Penguin, 2013, 327 pages.

To begin with, Alaska isn't really in this story except as a dream and a cameo in the end. It can't be misrepresented because it was more the dream of the frontier. That is the Alaska I knew before I moved here and it is still the Alaska I love. From what I can tell, the experiences driving the AlCan (Alaska Canadian highway) in that time period are pretty accurate.

Alaskan accuracy aside (and awesome alliteration), let's talk about the book. For me it dragged at the beginning, I had trouble investing in the first bit. By about 1/3rd of the way through I was into it. By the last third of the book, I was in "do not put this book down" mode.

At the center of the tale is Donna, a high school senior growing up in Ohio in the 1950s. She has a lot going on in her life, a little brother she cares for and protects from their alcoholic father and abusive grandmother, a burgeoning desire to be a fashion designer, and the overwhelming expectations and mores of small town America in the 1950s. That would be a lot for anyone, but all that falls apart when her younger brother gets sick. Will had been obsessed with collecting cereal box tops and sending away for a deed to "one square inch of Alaska Territory". In a moment of emotion Donna grabs her mother's old convertible, her sick younger brother, an abused husky dog and drives off to find that one square inch.

That journey was why I picked up the book however (MINOR SPOILER) that journey doesn't come until near the end of the book. The real journey is Donna's emotional journey. And both journeys, emotional and physical, are realistic and satisfying. The characters are frankly portrayed and richly drawn. One or two characters verge on the stereotyped, but without ever going into the cliche. By the end of the book, they and especially Donna are real enough to you that you are sad to leave them behind. However the author does one of those wonderful epilogues where you find out what happens to the characters. I love those. I get so attached to characters.

If I had a criticism of this book, I would say it was trying to do too much. There is the strike/union activity, the sickness of the brother, the mystery about the mother, the alcoholic father, the art teacher, the McCarthy era political fighting, the romance, and a few things I'm leaving out. It's a lot for one short book and honestly one or two of those could have been dropped. Life isn't simple and often many things happen all at once not one issue in a vacuum. Almost every issue/plot string felt organic to the times and the story, save one. I'm not saying which, but one felt a bit forced. However it was not enough to detract from my overall enjoyment of the book.

Bottom line: Recommended for older teen and adult readers. Special interest to readers looking for a sensitive coming of age story and anyone who ever dreamed of running away to the frontier.

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