My One Square Inch of Alaska

Written by Sharon Short
Review by John Kachuba

Life in 1950s small-town Groverton, Ohio, doesn’t hold much interest for ambitious high-school senior Donna Lane, who has visions of becoming a fashion designer in New York City. But working two jobs — waitressing at her stern grandmother’s café and altering dresses at Miss Bettina’s Dress Shop — and trying to stay out of the way of her alcoholic father while taking care of Will, her younger brother, seem to turn her dreams into unattainable fantasies. Will has fantasies of his own and is obsessed with a TV show called Sergeant Striker and the Alaskan Wild. The boy believes that Trusty, the junkyard husky he has stolen, needs to be returned to his home in the territory of Alaska, even though the dog never lived there; Will is certain that he is the one to take him there.

Donna’s life is complicated by the arrival of two strangers to Groverton, one the son of the paper mill owner and the other a bohemian art teacher — who may also be a “commie” — hired by the high school. Donna begins dating Jimmy, son of the mill boss, and secretly poses for the art teacher, Mr. Cahill. The two men, in their own ways, rekindle the spark of her desire to leave Groverton, but when Will falls ill with a terminal disease, Donna drops everything to make Will’s dream come true.

Donna packs up her mother’s old convertible with Will, Trusty, and a road atlas, setting off on an adventurous trip that will take them many miles from home, both physically and spiritually.

The novel is written from Donna’s perspective and is loaded with details about fashion design, as well as social issues of the ’50s, such as the threat of childhood polio and communist paranoia. Yet, this debut novel is still essentially a quest story that resonates for men as well as women in a heartwarming and compassionate way.