I ended up with a copy of “Steam Laundry” in a chance meeting at the Red Hen Press booth at the AWP conference in Chicago. I had just finished having a photo of me snapped by one of the wonderful editors at the Los Angeles Review, who had been kind enough to publish my short story No One, about a reckless man in a small town in Alaska, when I met Nicole Stellon O’Donnell. I quickly learned that Nicole was from Fairbanks, the city I was born in, and I found out that her genre bending “novel in poems” Steam Laundry was based on the true story of Sarah Ellen Gibson, the sixth woman to arrive in Fairbanks, Alaska in the gold rush of 1903.
Nicole told me that she found letters, receipts, tickets and other items belonging to Sarah Ellen Gibson in the archives of the Rasmuson Library, and ended up drawing her story from them and actually placing some of the items into the book itself.
As a poet who also writes novels, and a fourth generation born Alaskan from a gold mining family that had made a similar journey to Fairbanks to find fortune, I knew I was hooked and immediately asked the author to sign my copy after purchasing it at the booth. It turned out to be from Boreal Books, a new imprint of Red Hen Press.
The book starts with an electric poem River Town, and the lines: “The men who became street names meet in a saloon in the afterlife.” From that point on I knew I was hooked. I did, however, discover that I needed to adjust the way I read the remainder of the book.
To carry the complex narrative thread of Sarah Ellen Gibson, her alcoholic husband, sons, and two perilous journeys first to the Klondike, then to Fairbanks, many of the remaining poems were letters back and forth between family members, and had as much in common with fiction as poetry.
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:
“On the Docks of Dyea, men outnumber stones.”
“At the scales in town, men empty their bags, every grain a world of labor, but there’s more money to wring it out of their pants in the laundry or dance hall.”
“I knew this marriage was too rough to be smoothed by time or creek water.”
My father was visiting this week from Fairbanks, and when I told him the plot of the book he told me dryly: “It sounds like Fairbanks now.” This statement resonated with me, as well. Much of the fortune from the gold rush days, then later from the oil pipeline, ended up in the pockets of companies selling supplies, housing and providing vices to those seeking their fortune.
This history lesson plays itself out time and time again in American life, not just in Alaska, as we see the house in Vegas and entities such as Goldman Sachs making money in every scenario while their clients get rich and poor in a seemingly endless cycle. This spirit of gambling is impossible to wash out of the fabric of American life, as much as it was for Sarah Ellen Gibson to try to clean the stains out of the clothing of sourdoughs in the Steam Laundry that she ran as a way to make ends meet as her family’s dreams of gold churned to tragedy.