Fiction writers are often exasperated by questions from readers who want to know whether their books’ characters and events are based on real life. Not so with Kirkpatrick Hill.
Instead, she told BookPage in an interview from her Fairbanks, Alaska, home, “Everything in the book is pretty much true. Think of me as a Grandma Moses type: I’m just recapturing things.”
In her eighth novel for young readers, Bo at Ballard Creek, Hill sends us back to the 1920s, to a post-gold rush town called Ballard Creek that sits on the Koyukuk River. She herself lived at a mining camp as a child in the 1940s—she comes from a family of mining engineers—and says she was “just like Bo.”
Readers who grew up in suburbs or cities—really, anywhere that doesn’t have Alaska’s snow and ice and bouts of 24-hour daylight—may find it hard to picture living in a 1920s mining town intertwined with an Eskimo village, a place where everyone has a broom on the front stoop (it’s rude not to sweep snow off your boots before you go inside); kids are told not to run in the woods because a bear might chase them; and only one resident has ever laid eyes on an airplane.
But thanks to Hill’s vivid writing (and her palpable fondness for her home state), plus LeUyen Pham’s artful, adorable illustrations, the places and people of Bo’s world soon feel familiar. Especially because, despite being set in a seemingly exotic place, Hill’s story encompasses universal themes—like the fact that families don’t require members to be blood relations.
Bo’s own family is described in the first chapter: “Bo had two fathers and no mothers, and after she got the fathers, she got a brother, too. But not in the usual way.”
It’s a promising, tantalizing start, and Hill has crafted an entertaining and interesting backstory: Bo’s fathers both came to Alaska in the gold rush of 1897, in search of work and a way to get some distance from sadness. Arvid, a Swede, had recently lost his mother, and Jack, an African American, was grieving the death of his fiancée. The two big, strong men became friends and workmates, and when Bo’s mother (a “good-time girl” known as Mean Millie) thrust her baby at them and demanded they take her to a local orphanage, Arvid and Jack couldn’t bear to leave her there. So they took her home and, with help from their miner and Eskimo neighbors, they became Bo’s family.
Hill says the blend of races and cultures in Bo at Ballard Creek jives with her own experiences, as does Bo’s unofficial adoption. She says, “It happened a lot. It was a ubiquitous thing, not just men of course. . . . And also, within the Indian culture, it was very common for people to give up their kids. Kids would live right in the same village with their natural parents and have two sets of relatives. And you see, Jack and Arvid had no legal claim to Bo at all, because they never would’ve had to.”
It’s fascinating stuff, not least because it’s true. That’s very important to Hill, who says her urge to commit Alaska—and its singular history, dramatic terrain and diverse people—to the printed page was prompted by years of frustration with the way the state was depicted in books and other media. As a mother of six, and during her 30-plus years as an elementary school teacher, Hill encountered many ill-informed books about her state. “I would read Alaska books to my children, and they were all totally bogus because the authors weren’t from Alaska. And Jack London . . . it was as bogus as you could get!” So, she decided she’d write about Alaska herself.
Her first book, Toughboy and Sister, was published in 1990, when Hill was in her early 50s (if you’re wondering, Grandma Moses began painting in her 70s). She explains, “I’d gotten seriously broke and needed a new life plan, so I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just send this off and get some money.’ I had no clue how anything worked at all!” Then, she says, “By the sheerest good luck, it fell into the right hands. A dear, lovely person got it out of the slush pile and wrote me a letter. . . . It never should’ve happened. You just don’t do things like that!”
But Hill did, and it worked—and she’s been writing ever since. While her protagonists are a range of ages, and her time periods are both historic and contemporary, all of her books are set in her beloved home state and make real the traditions and trials, foods and fun experienced by the people who have lived there, from sliding down a riverbank, to making ice cream out of decidedly non-dairy ingredients, to hearing the click-clacks of a telegraph machine.
Like all of Hill’s novels, Bo at Ballard Creek is a fine mix of happiness and hard truths, reverence for history and excitement about innovation. It’s enough to make readers want to visit Alaska to see it for themselves. Though perhaps, for those who are winter-precipitation-averse, you might want to check the forecast first: When she spoke with BookPage in May, Hill realized that day was her “last ticket for the ice pool. . . . I guessed on days the ice would go out. But the weather’s gone mad, and we’re still experiencing winter when normally there would be leaves on the trees. I’m looking out my window at snow, deep snow.”