Timber Tales

lumberjacks are the action heroes of Eau Claire author’s young adult novel

Tom Giffey, photos by Andrea Paulseth

LOGGING ON. Author Caroline Akervik poses at the Paul Bunyan Logging Camp Museum in Carson Park.
LOGGING ON. Author Caroline Akervik poses at the Paul Bunyan Logging Camp Museum in Carson Park.

Much has been said in the past decade or so about a renaissance in young adult literature. Led by the Harry Potter series, and later by the Twilight and Hunger Games books, it would seem there’s hardly been a better time to be a young (or even not-so-young) reader looking for well-written, engaging, and hyper-popular literature.

Yet these mega-series and their many imitators aren’t for everyone. If you aren’t interested in wizards, vampires, or other sci-fi or fantasy tropes, you’re not likely to be drawn to these books – and, these days, it’s hard to find much else on the shelves. This becomes especially problematic when it comes to luring so-called “reluctant readers” – who, more often than not, are boys – to the printed page.

As a school librarian and a mother of three, Caroline Akervik knows of these challenges firsthand. “My two boys don’t like fantasy at all,” she says. “I wanted them to try some historical fiction.” So, inspired after accompanying her children’s field trips to the Paul Bunyan Logging Camp Museum and being told by her son to write something about lumberjacks, Akervik penned the middle-grade novel White Pine.

Subtitled “My Year as a Lumberjack and a River Rat,” the recently published novel tells the story of Sevy Anderson, the 14-year-old son of a Norwegian immigrant lumberjack living in Eau Claire’s Shawtown neighborhood. When a work accident leaves his father with a broken leg, Sevy is forced to support his family by traveling to the northwoods to work in a logging camp. At first the boy is excited at the prospect of leaving school to take a man’s job, but he quickly learns that a lumberjack’s life is anything but easy as he faces physical dangers and personal challenges.

While Sevy, his family, and the rest of the characters are fictional, the sawdust-coated, pine-scented world they live in – Eau Claire, circa 1886 – isn’t: Sevy works for the real-life Daniel Shaw Lumber Co. and buys his gear at Whiteside’s General Store on Menomonie Street, and he employs the tools, techniques, and lingo used by Paul Bunyan’s real-life inspirations.

With the help of the Chippewa Valley Museum and the Wisconsin Historical Society, Akervik delved into the history of the logging era. “I tried to be as historically accurate as possibly, with the understanding that it is historical fiction,” she says. (In other words, forgive her for any inadvertent inaccuracies.) The book, which features a cover and illustrations by local artist Julie Schaller, was published this spring by Fire and Ice, an imprint of Minnesota-based Melange Books, which also published Akervik’s prior young adult novel, Viking.

As a media specialist at Lakeshore Elementary in Eau Claire, Akervik knows the importance relevant material has in inspiring the growth of youngsters’ literacy skills. “They need to be able to make connections with what they’re reading or writing,” she says. For the third-grade class at Lakeshore, who read White Pine in class this spring, that was easy: Akervik says the kids were thrilled the book talked about Shawtown, where many of them live, and dealt with the logging industry, which made use of Half Moon Lake – a lake that’s literally in their school’s backyard.

Exploring logging history was a learning experience for Akervik, too. She grew up on the East Coast, so she has no family link to the era. Paradoxically, this lack of a direct connection inspired her to explore this important part of Eau Claire’s history further. “I wanted to understand the town I lived in,” she explains.

In addition to getting her history and logging vocabulary right, Akervik faced another challenge: As a conservationist, it was sometimes hard for her to write about an industry that largely deforested the region. “I can’t impose my thoughts and beliefs on the people of that time, but I struggled with that,” she admits.

The struggle, though, doesn’t compare to the challenges faced by her fictional hero, who embodies the strength and daring of the men who became legends by felling the great white pine forests. “These guys shouldn’t be forgotten,” she says. “They were basically superheroes of their era.”

White Pine by Caroline Akervik is available at The Local Store, 205 N. Dewey St., and online via Amazon and other outlets. To learn more, visit carolineakervik.blogspot.com and click on “Books.”

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