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.
— 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