Alaska Reads is a biennial statewide reading program that features a selected publication by a living Alaskan author. This year’s selection is Steam Laundry a novel in poetry form by Nicole Stellon O’Donnell.
Steam Laundry is a novel in poems based on the true story of Sarah Ellen Gibson, a miner’s wife during the Klondike and Alaska gold rushes. Her journey began as she followed her husband to Dawson City, Yukon Territory in 1898. She stayed there three years as the town boomed and her marriage burned out. In 1903, she left her husband and sons to start over in Fairbanks, Alaska, with another man. Based on archival research and incorporating historical documents and photographs, the poems approach the past through the ghosts of correspondence.
The poems, written in the voices of Gibson, her family members, and the people who knew her, take on love, loss, failure, and desire. Some confront the drama of failed marriages, troubled family relationships, and alcoholism. Others spin the dramatic details of hunting accidents and subarctic survival into compelling stories in verse. They embody the opposing voices of an era during which men and women struggled in different, but overlapping, universes.
By staring at Gibson through the spectral lenses of the people around her, the documents she left behind, and the vision of a contemporary poet, the particulars of Gibson’s life are transformed into an exploration of the people history usually forgets. Steam Laundry offers the reader the chance to try on the dusty, mining-town overcoat of Gibson’s life.
The author, Nicole Stellon O’Donnell’s first collection, Steam Laundry, won the 2013 WILLA Literary Award for Poetry. Her next book, You Are No Longer in Trouble, a memoir-in-flash about being a teacher, a student, and a principal’s daughter is forthcoming in March 2019 from the Marie Alexander Series. Everything Never Comes Your Way, a collection of poems, will be published by Boreal Books in 2020.
Her poems have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Passages North, Bellingham Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, The Women’s Review of Books, Redivider, Zyzzyva, and other literary journals. Her essays and commentaries appeared in the Anchorage Daily News on the Alaska Public Radio Network. She received both an Individual Artist Award and an Artist Fellowship from the Rasmuson Foundation, as well as a Boochever Fellowship and an Alaska Literary Award from the Alaska Arts and Culture Foundation. In 2014, she served the winter writer-in-residence at Denali National Park. She spent the spring of 2016 in South India as a recipient of a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching. She teaches English at a school for incarcerated youth. She lives in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Reading events and discussions of Steam Laundry are being organized now. If you are interested in participating in the program, it’s easy to do! The Cordova Public Library has many copies of Steam Laundry available for our patrons. You can pick one up now and then participate in our discussion with the author once it is scheduled.