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.
About the Author
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Terpsichore Johnson Cooks Dinner
November, 1934—Little Bear Lake, Wisconsin
It was because Terpsichore was the only unmusical Johnson that she dragged a hatchet across the yard toward a pumpkin as big as a pickle barrel. She stumbled over an icy hillock of mud where her mother’s roses had been uprooted to make way for potatoes. The wind howled and whipped her skirt around her knees. It snatched notes from her sisters’ piano duet, which escaped through the crack in the parlor window and swirled up to meet the chimney smoke. If Terpsichore had not made that foolish bargain with her mother, she could have been inside with her sisters, warm. She would not have to attack that monster pumpkin like a lumberjack.
She raised the hatchet over her head and heaved it down with the full weight of her seventy-three pounds behind it. The strike vibrated up her arms and clear through her shoulders to her jaws. After several more blows, she finally hacked off a section light enough to carry into the kitchen.
Terpsichore’s father said she was a wizard with pumpkins. After all, she could turn a hunk of pumpkin into pumpkin pie, pumpkin soup, pumpkin muffins, pumpkin pancakes, pumpkin custard, pumpkin cookies, pumpkin bread, and pumpkin fritters. A good thing, too, because pumpkin was about all that was left to eat.
By the time she’d boiled the pumpkin long enough to make it edible, though, everyone was too hungry that night to wait for her to turn it into muffins or fritters. Instead, she just mashed it and decorated it with a sprinkle of parsley from her mother’s window garden.
“Yuck, Trip! Pumpkin mash?” Polly poked her fork at the mound of pumpkin on her plate. Cally poked her mound, too.
Terpsichore’s ears cringed at hearing the twins’ nickname for her that announced to the world “This girl’s a stumblebum!”
“You’re not a baby anymore, Polly. You can say my whole name: Terp-sick-oh-ree! And if you don’t like pumpkin mash, don’t eat it, fancy fingers.” She shot the twins what her father called her piercing basilisk glare, a glare so intense that it usually bent them to her will, at least for a little while. “Let’s see how good you are with a hatchet.”
“What’s a hatchet got to do with dinner?” Cally poked her mash again.
“I’m sure Terpsichore worked very hard to make us this nourishing dinner,” Mother said. She spooned a bite of pumpkin into baby Matthew’s mouth. With a flick of his tongue, the pumpkin oozed back out of his mouth, dribbled down his chin, and sat in a blob on his bib.
Terpsichore poked her own mound of pumpkin mash. She had bargained herself into the role of family cook to get out of piano lessons. Mother had always made time for Terpsichore’s lessons, even when baby Matthew kept her up most of the night. One day last summer, after fumbling through the first few bars of “Für Elise,” Terpsichore had slammed her palms down on the piano keys and said she would rather cook dinner for the rest of her life than practice one more hour at the piano.
Before one more ticktock of the metronome, Mother said, “Deal!” And that was the day her mother gave up trying to make a musician out of Terpsichore.
“I’ll make pumpkin pancakes tomorrow,” Terpsichore said. “It’s just that everyone was so hungry . . .”
Pop reached over to squeeze Terpsichore’s shoulder. “It’s not your fault we’re reduced to eating pumpkin for dinner.”
Even though her father had dug up nearly every square inch of their yard and replaced her mother’s flowers with plants you could eat, there was never enough food. The rhubarb leaves had grown big as elephant ears, but they were poisonous. The stalks were red as strawberries, but without sugar, they were more lip-puckery than a pickle. The pole beans were long gone—since Mother was not up to canning after birthing Matthew, they ate those beans fresh until their eyeballs turned green. They ate the zucchini last month before it went moldy. Her father had made sauerkraut out of the last of the cabbage just before frost.
This month they were eating their way through pumpkin before it went soft. Then they’d have to face the sauerkraut.
Pop rolled up his sleeves, exposing new muscle earned by gardening instead of working as a bookkeeper at the mill. He balanced his knife on his forefinger and gently seesawed it up and down. Terpsichore watched the knife tip one way, then the other, as if her father were weighing choices.
Pop cleared his throat. “The Olsons got the paperwork about President Roosevelt’s new Matanuska Colony project. They’re going to apply.” He was talking to her mother, but he was staring at his knife.
Mother laid her knife and fork slantwise on her plate.
“What Matanuska Colony project is that, Mr. Johnson?”
“It’s where the government has set aside land in Palmer, Alaska—forty acres for a family.” Her father finally looked up and let the knife topple so he could throw out both arms to show them how big forty acres was. “And you get a loan of about three thousand dollars to get started on your own farm.”
“Alaska?” Terpsichore let out a horrified squeak as she thought about icebergs and endless winter.
Cally and Polly echoed “Alaska” one beat behind her. They exchanged goggle-eyed glances.
Mother clutched Matthew tighter on her lap.
Pop filled the silence. “With forty acres we could grow crops and still have room for your roses.” He reached for Mother’s arm, but she shifted on her chair, just out of reach.
“We could have pigs, a couple horses, a milk cow, and a few sheep.” He forced a grin and looked around the table for answering grins, but there weren’t any.
“You can’t take a baby to the frozen wilderness!” Mother nuzzled Matthew’s head.
Terpsichore edged forward on her chair. “Can we take pets with us? I won’t go without Tigger!”
“How could we afford to get back home if we don’t like it?” Mother asked.
“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.
“The piano would go out of tune!” Mother looked through the archway between the dining room and parlor toward her prized Chickering upright grand. Her voice cracked. “Would we even get to take the piano?”
Of course Terpsichore wouldn’t miss the piano. What made her heart flutter anxiously was the thought of the stack of library books she kept beside her bed. She couldn’t sleep whenever the stack of unread books became too low. Would there be a library in Alaska? And this house, how could they leave the house that her father had built for them—the plate rail with her mother’s wedding china ringing the room, the built-in cupboards and buffet along one wall, the solid brass electrified chandelier overhead?
Pop heard them out, but when their reasons for not going to Alaska petered out, he took up his rebuttal. “First of all, I’m not saying we’re going. After all, they’re only choosing a few families in this county to go. But I do think Alaska would be a good chance for us. This is the Matanuska Valley, not the Arctic Circle. It won’t be any colder there than here in northern Wisconsin. In the summer the sun hardly sets and it gets up to eighty degrees. I hear they grow pumpkins so big it takes four men to lift them.” Her father winked at Terpsichore.
Judging from the worry lines in Mother’s forehead, she wasn’t sold. “You already have your answers, don’t you? You’re not just going for information tomorrow, are you?”
“Competition will be tough. If I have to move fast to get us one of those slots, I will.”
“Even if I refuse to go?”
“Jiminy,” he said, as he threw his napkin down on the table. “We have to face facts. We’re one step from starving and I won’t go on government relief and have church ladies coming around with charity baskets.” He rose from the table and looked out the window, his back to the rest of the family.
Was their situation really as desperate as her father was saying? He had always told Terpsichore this was the land of opportunity. That if a person was willing to work, he’d never starve. But hard work wasn’t always enough when there were hard times all over the country. They had worked hard and they still faced a winter with almost nothing left to eat but sauerkraut. Maybe Pop was right now. They would have to go to Alaska.
Let Them Eat Worms
Terpsichore watched her father as he stood in front of the mirror by the front door to straighten the part in his hair.
Her mother watched too, her face grim.
Pop took his fedora from the hook by the door and adjusted it on his head.
“Don’t I get a say in this?” Mother asked. “Why don’t we just admit we’re not making it on our own and apply for relief like most of the other mill families? Or we could move in with my mother in Madison. We don’t have to do something as drastic as moving to Alaska.”
He held up one hand against anything else she might say. “It’s my job to provide for this family, not the government’s,” he said. “And I’m not saying we’re going to do it.”
“But you’re sure acting like it,” Mother said. “We belong here, where we have friends—and doctors and schools and libraries.”
“This may be a ghost town soon,” Pop said.
“Maybe the mill will reopen,” Terpsichore said. “Maybe you’ll get your job back and we won’t have to move.”
“Look out the window, Terpsichore. How many trees do you see on the hills?”
The hills were once covered with oak and maple trees that turned red, orange, and gold in the fall. Now all that was left was stumps and scrub. There weren’t any trees left to feed to the mill.
Mother darted back and forth between the table and the sink as if the fate of the world rested on her having a tidy kitchen. Pop caught up with her to plant a kiss on the top of her head before he left the house.
At recess, instead of making snow forts in the fresh snow, everyone huddled to hear who might be applying to move to Alaska. It turned out that lots of fathers were going to the county building that morning.
Terpsichore and her best friend, Eileen, were a huddle of two. “Does your dad want to move to Alaska?” Terpsichore asked.
“Da thinks that we have to go if we can,” Eileen said. “If we don’t, we’ll probably have to move in with Uncle Patrick in his apartment in Chicago.”
“And if we don’t go to Alaska,” Terpsichore said, “we’ll probably have to move in with Grandmother VanHagen in Madison.” Terpsichore thought of Grandmother’s house, where everything was so proper and quiet you were afraid to laugh out loud. Maybe Alaska wouldn’t be so bad compared to that. “How will they choose the families who get to go?”
“You have to have farming experience, so my da thinks we’ll have a good chance of getting picked,” Eileen said. “I bet some people applying have never grown a radish or milked a cow.”
“I don’t know if a henhouse and vegetable patch would count as a farm,” Terpsichore said. “So maybe we won’t get picked.” She shrugged. “And I don’t even know if I’d want to go. One minute I think it would be a crackerjack adventure and the next minute I think of all I’d miss, especially you—if you’re still here, that is.”
“We won’t be able to stay here long—and I don’t want to live in my uncle’s apartment, so I hope we go to Alaska,” Eileen said.
“Then the only way we can stay together is to both go. We have to make it happen.” Terpsichore took off the mitten on her right hand. “Pinky promise?”
Eileen took off her right mitten too. “Pinky promise!”
They interlocked little fingers.
“I do solemnly promise,” Terpsichore said, “I will do everything in my power to help my family go to Alaska.”
Eileen repeated the pledge, and with fingers still interlocked, they shook hands three times.
That evening, Pop told the family about his visit to the county building. “I got some crazy news today.” He looked at all of them: Mother, his little Muses—Terpsichore, Calliope, and Polyhymnia—and baby Matthew in his cradle.
“In order to qualify for the Alaska program you have to be on relief. So because we’ve skimped and made do instead of going on relief we’re not eligible. We’re the kind of self‑reliant people needed up north, but we were rejected before they even read my application. It makes no sense at all.”
Pop’s forehead wrinkled in frustration. Terpsichore had to agree with her father. It wasn’t fair that they were disqualified because they hadn’t gone on relief. When Pop lost his job last year, he had sold his car to Mr. Nostrand—the owner of the general store—and Mother sold some jewelry, so they’d have money to live on till they figured out how to make it without the income from the mill.
Terpsichore locked her pinky fingers under the table. She couldn’t let Eileen’s family go to Alaska without the Johnsons. What could she do?
Pop picked up the stack of forms he’d filled out and threw them in the air. “That’s what I think of their requirements. I’d like to go to Alaska, but I would rather eat worms than go on relief.” He stomped outside.
Cally started to cry. “I don’t want to eat worms.”
“Me neither,” said Polly.
Terpsichore knew her father didn’t really mean for them to eat worms, so she tried to make a joke of it. “Maybe if you dipped them in flour and fried them? Or chopped them up and mixed them with bread crumbs and baked them like a meat loaf?”
“That’s disgusting, Trip.” Cally gagged into her napkin.
Polly pushed back her chair and dashed to the bathroom. It sounded like she made it there before upchucking.
“Terpsichore Johnson! Now look what you’ve done,” her mother said. “You’d think at your age you’d have more sense than to say things that send your sisters into gastric spasms.”
“It’s not my fault,” Terpsichore said. “Pop talked about eating worms first.”
Terpsichore crawled under the table to pick up the forms her father had tossed. There were forms for applying for relief and forms to apply for the Alaska program. She’d promised Eileen she would do everything she could to make sure her family went to Alaska. She’d think of something, or her name wasn’t Terpsichore Johnson!