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Where does one find home?

Posted: June 16, 2011 - 9:35am

Naomi Gaede-Penner doesn’t like the label “memoir,” although her new book “From Kansas Wheat Fields to Alaska Tundra: A Mennonite Family Finds Home” has been described as such.

Penner’s family moved from the plains of Kansas to the Last Frontier of Alaska in 1955. Her tale is a first-person account of homesteading just outside of Soldotna with her father, mother, and three younger sib lings, carefully threaded with the theme of rootlessness and how one comes to identify a place as “home.”

It sounds like a memoir, but it’s less self-indulgent than that. More historical nonfiction than anything else, “From Kansas Wheat Fields to Alaska Tundra” expands beyond the scope of the Gaede family, incorporating local history and the stories of other homesteading families into its narrative.

“I feel memoirs are often people’s personal stories,” said Penner, “whereas I’ve worked very hard to include the history of Alaska, the history of Native people, the history of Soldotna, Kenai, and Seldovia.
“I don’t want it to be all about us, the Gaede family. I want it to be us and the community.”

“From Kansas Wheat Fields to Alaska Tundra” is actually a revamped and refurbished version of one of Penner’s earlier books, “A Prescription for Finding Home in Alaska,” which she felt had many “unresolved issues” relating to the work’s key idea.

“I strengthened that theme about finding home,” Penner said, “because people will move, like for the military, or coming to Alaska, or missionary kids and so on, and they’re caught between and among their different worlds.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re going to Japan or Argentina. If you’ve changed localities then there can be that feeling like you’re in a different world. And where is home?”

When Penner moved to Alaska as a 5-year-old, she desperately longed for her old farm home in Kansas. She hated the powdered milk her family drank instead of the fresh milk from their dairy cows, and she missed her relatives. The move began Penner’s lifelong struggle to identify with one place as her true home.

At 15, Penner’s parents sent her to a Mennonite boarding school in Oklahoma, and she “has been coming and going since that time.”

Penner has moved 23 times in her life, and though her residence is technically in Colorado, she returns to Alaska at least once (usually three times) every year, continuing her “restless search for home.”

“Who really did find home in Alaska?” she wondered. “My sister found home in Alaska, my parents found home in Alaska. But it’s something I have wrestled with.”

As part of her book tour, Penner will be attending a book signing at the Care Package gift shop in Central Peninsula Hospital at noon on Monday, June 20. Penner will also conduct a workshop session on “Writing the Personal Story – Simply” at CPH on that same day from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

A multimedia presentation entitled “The Way it was Back Then: Homesteading and Life in the Early 1960s” is scheduled for noon on Thursday, June 23, at the Soldotna Senior Center.

“From Kansas Wheat Fields to Alaska Tundra: A Mennonite Family Finds Home” is published by Tate Publishing and can be purchased at the Care Package gift shop, River City Books, and King’s Treasures. An e-book version can be purchased online at http://www.prescriptionforadventure.com.

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