Please forgive me. The pen runs away with itself.

-- Tom Gibson

Steam Laundry

Cover Artwork by Margo Klass

Steam Laundry is a novel in poems available from Boreal Books, an imprint of Red Hen Press. It tells the story of Sarah Ellen Gibson, the sixth woman to arrive in Fairbanks in the gold rush of 1903. With her two children, she followed her husband to Dawson City, Yukon Territory in 1898. As their relationship faltered and her business opportunities dried up, she fled to Fairbanks with hopes of opening her own hotel. The book weaves persona, with poems in the voices of many characters, lyric poems, and historical photographs and documents to trace her path.

Praise for Steam Laundry:

In O’Donnell’s narrative of familial and social history, we experience Alaska—its financial and romantic allure— and the gender disparities that defined frontier reality in the early 20th century. Readers meet Sarah Ellen Gibson, her marriage “so new/I could hold it in my palm /like an egg still warm/ from the henhouse.”  We learn that “where men prospect, women wash” and witness Gibson’s struggle to “wring /our living out of this frozen dirt.”  O’Donnell’s research yields unsparing details that vivify daily life in the Yukon Territory; she honors women who build laundries and roadhouses, making a place for themselves under unrelenting emotional and physical conditions.  This book-length sequence will hold you in its spell.

Robin Becker, author of Domain of Perfect Affection

Steam Laundry is a great story, poems that work research into narrative art.  These are the stories  of the earth, broken for gold, and the women whose work doing laundry made possible difficult but ambitious lives.  One family goes in search of gold.  We readers find gold here in this brilliant book that won’t be put down!

Hilda Raz, author of TRANS and What Happens

This collection of poems about those who came to the Yukon and Alaska over a century ago in search of gold and a better life is a compelling read. I could feel the bitter cold of the landscape and the desires and passions of the characters as I read poem after poem unable to put the book down until I reached the end. This is a book that deserves to be read.

Tom Sexton, former poet laureate of Alaska


In O’Donnell’s poems, ordinary objects become powerful symbols of possibility. The steam from the laundries offers baptism into economic prosperity, a way to “be well-off someday, washed / away in the tide of money this rough / land promises.” “The click / of caribou knees, like twigs snapping in chorus”—heard by wounded men unable to hunt—signal chances lost to dumb luck. This unique debut collection presents not only images worth savoring, but a new voice notable in its commitment to shedding light on past lives. Read the whole review here.

                                                                                                     — Julie Swarstad Johnson, Rain Taxi Review of Books

I couldn’t read this book as a series of poems, but rather as a complex and dramatic story with poetic sensibilities. And I was not disappointed. There is plenty of drama for fiction lovers, painstaking accuracy for history buffs and wonderful lines throughout in the letters. Read the whole review here.

Martin Ott, Writeliving

This collection deserves a wider readership; deserves to be seen as more than an “Alaskan” collection. I hope it will persuade both readers and writers of poetry that there need to be more collections like this, based on courageous and skillful melding of historical documents and lyric poems. Read the whole review here (pages 105-107).

–Ela Harrison Gordon, Cirque, v. 4 no. 1

Steam Laundry is available from Gulliver’s Books (in Fairbanks), Powell’s, directly from Red Hen Press, or from Amazon. You can also ask your local bookseller to order a copy for you.


Read & Listen

My poems and essays had appeared offline in Bellingham Review, Prairie Schooner, Fourteen Hills, The Los Angeles Review, Passages North, Dogwood, The Women’s Review of Books, Ice Floe, and other literary journals.

Poems and essays online:

“Seascape with Eagle, Driftwood, Ravens, Seagull, Two Men and Their Phones” in Brevity.

Poems from the “Helen” sequence in Common-Place.

“The Bossy e Meets His Match” in Diode.

“River Town” featured in Verse Daily.

I wrote a column called Subarctic Mama for Literary Mama, an online journal for the maternally inclined. It deals with Alaska, motherhood, and parenting girls in this peculiar place.

“Mother-in-law” featured in  The Saturday Poetry Series at As It Ought to Be.

Narratives Lost and Found,” an essay written for Northwest Voices, a feature of Pacific Northwest Bookseller’s Association about working in a bookstore and researching in the archives.

“Canzone Basking in the Pre-Apocalypse” appears in Dogwood: A Journal of Poetry and Prose, 2012.

“The Miner’s Wife,”The New Camp” and “Ellen Notices the Dry Spring” appear in Extract(s), March 16, 2012.

“River Town” and “Raven” appear in Cirque: A Literary Journal of the North Pacific Rim, Volume 3:1 on pages 63-64.

“Infidelity” appears in Cirque: A Literary Journal for the North Pacific Rim, Volume 2:1 on page 41.

“The Seven Sisters” appeared in Beloit Poetry Journal, Summer 1996 46:4.

Commentaries for KUAC and APRN:

I’ve been a commentator for KUAC, our local NPR station, and APRN, our statewide NPR affiliate. You’ll find a couple of samples in the links here.

Here’s a piece called “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” It’s about Walt Whitman, writing poetry, and having kids, and how those things intersect. I wrote it as I was just starting to write Steam Laundry. It aired 4/6/2007.

Fairbanks Funk is about the urge we all get to leave Fairbanks during the month of February. It aired 2/17/2007.

Commentaries for AK Radio:

When APRN used to put out AK, I was an occasional commentator. Here are links to some of the pieces I recorded for them. The links below play the whole show, so you’ll have the good fortune to listen to a little slice of Alaskan life.

10/06/2007: I interviewed my mother, who told a story about a family murder that she witnessed when she was a child.

06/23/2007: I wrote about fashion and Fairbanks, analyzing the deliberately disheveled look I cultivated when I was a cabin-dwelling graduate student.

04/28/2007: I read a piece about found poetry and the infamous Bible Baptist church sign here in Fairbanks.

Book Clubs

Yes, most book clubs read  novels or nonfiction. I know. I’ve been in those book clubs. They’re great fun. I once had the pleasure of being in a book club that mostly sat around and drank cocktails. We dispensed with the books and changed our name to “cocktail club.” That was fun too.

Let me make you a proposition. I’d like to be your book club’s gateway poet. Read Steam Laundry with your book group. You never know if you’ll like something until you try. Who knows, once you try poetry, maybe you’ll never go back.

In order to encourage you, I will happily work with any book group that’s reading Steam Laundry. Please message me at my contact page. I will answer your group’s questions via email, call in to your book group, or even Skype. You could even ask me to read specific poems to you. If you’re reading my book, I’m game. Get in touch with me and we can work something out.

This offer stands for instructors using Steam Laundry in class. I’d be thrilled to correspond with your students or to Skype in to your class for a discussion or reading. All you need to do is get in touch.

If your book group is more of a cocktail club, I’d be willing to email you a list of cocktails that would accompany a discussion of Steam Laundry.