I had a chance to talk to Niki Breeser Tschirgi, the author of Growing Up Alaska: Memories of a Town, A Time, a Place, and a People Planted in a Little Pocket of Wonderful. Niki reminisces about her childhood in a town called Toke (pronounced "Toke"), in a bittersweet memoir. The author has recently promoted her book in Alaska, but I'm grateful that she took some time to answer some questions.
GH: Okay, go ahead and give your "elevator pitch" on this book. (You know, where you try and sell the book within two minutes.)
I grew up in Tok, AK in the 80's. This book is all about a kid who grew up in the interior of Alaska with her "normal" and the wildness and freedom of living up north. The cutoff for recess was -20 below zero and the cutoff for playing outside with friends was -40 below zero. Basketball trips were sometimes 5 days long and included bus travel, ferries and planes. We also played Canada and one time even Russia. However, the heart and soul of "Growing up Alaska" is the people, especially the people of Tok. Without them, there would be no "Growing up Alaska".
GH: This town of Tok, it appears that you have some good memories of it. Do you think your memories of this town would be different if you hadn't grown up in it?
My graduating class definitely wouldn't have been in debt for prom and forced to have their senior trip fishing at Broken Bridge if I wouldn't have been there. That was all my doing. Yes, it would have been different without me and I don't say that as a way to make me seem so important or great. I say that because in our town of around 1200 people, any one not there during that time would have made Tok different. We were a people planted and living in what could be a very isolated place. We needed each other. We were woven together on so many levels creating memories. Whether it was a teacher also being our coach or a family friend teaching Sunday School or offering employment at their business, it mattered and changed the dynamics of our small town living if someone was absent.
GH: The subtitle is "a people planted in a little pocket of wonderful". From what you have discovered, do most people in Tok feel the same way?
Regarding my recent trip to Tok, I would say yes regarding the people I spoke with. However, I am keenly aware that this is my story during a specific time with a certain group of people and two loving parents raising me. I know not everyone had that. I know not everyone had my experience. I am pretty confident that there are people out there that woud not say that their childhood was a treasure for them. There Growing up Alaska story may be very different. There Growing up Alaska story may not agree with a little pocket of wonderful.
GH: Without revealing too much about the book, because people want to read it, what is it that makes Tok so special.
The community. The location. The fact that you can live life a bit more slow and a bit more simple. But number one on my list would have to be the people.
GH: I noticed that your book says that "there was no Internet or cell phones". Considering that these didn't really exist back when you were a child, is this still the case? It is difficult to think about any town not having these things.
I found out really quick that the phrase "there was no internet or cell phones" isn't too far from the truth today. I was all set up to use WiFi to take credit cards and I wasn't able to connect once to do that. I had to be in a specific place in Tok in a house that was set up with WiFi and that WiFi wasn't unlimited! Who doesn't have unlimited WiFi? Well, the people of Alaska do not. You can pay for a service called MyFi where you connect anywhere there is a hot spot. But...you probably already guessed that MyFi doesn't work in Tok. Depending on your carrier you do have better Internet and cell phone. I happened to have a carrier who was NOT in Alaska so my plant for posting videos and checking in places on Facebook did not go as planned. Some videos I did announcing my event posted hours AFTER I was done. The condo we stayed at in Anchorage we had to pay extra for Internet usage. I had to go old school and try hard to remember directions and where I was going because my GPS on my phone didn't work (if I didn't' set the GPS route inside the condo forget it...I wasn't getting directions.) and texts I sent from the market where I did my book signing showed up on my husband's phone late that night. So, there is Internet and there are cell phones but I think you get the picture.
GH: I take it that Tok still has very cold winters and the occasional 6-month days/nights. Can you talk about that from a child's point of view in comparison to an adult's?
As a kid living year 'round in Alaska you adjusted and got used to it. My parents hung black garbage bags over my bedroom windows in the summer and during the winter. The wood stove was pumping out heat and we had the correct winter gear for cold, outdoor play. It was just how it was. As a mom now I have a much greater appreciation for what my mom did for me. The cold and the dark and the distance between towns without an ER close by? As a kid I was so oblivious to my surroundings. I was living to play. My parents were living to survive. I get that now.
GH: It's pretty clear that this book has a lot of nostalgia in this book, and it pretty clear that you're trying to capture the wonder of childhood. There is a lot of laughter there, for sure. The book says that you can "maybe cry a little". What is the sad part? If you don't mind going into detail on it.
The sad part might be different for people. Someone called me and mentioned my dad. They knew and loved him and it was emotional to think of him gone after all of these years. For others, it is bittersweet reading about a childhood that has come and gone. Sometimes tears come with good memories. Tears come with remembering the good times. Tears come when you have such a beautiful or difficult connection you just overflow. When that connection somehow gets plucked, the emotions come out. The "maybe cry a little" is going to be a personal thing. It might not be sad, it might be joy. It all depends on the reader.
GH: You have a family of many kids and husband, so how has "Growing Up Alaska" (the experience and not the book) affected your life with them?
My husband has flipped in, not just jumped in to my publishing. He wanted so badly to see my dream come to pass. In 2006, we sold everything and moved to Houston, Texas for him to pursue his dream of graduate school. I supported him in that dream, walked with him through it and now get the pleasure of watching him do what he loves to do (Genetic Counseling). He knew that now was my time to pursue my dream and he simply has, I guess you could say, returned the favor. I hope for my kids they see that dreams take hard work and a leap of faith, but if you are willing to work, take some risks and do what you are supposed to do, you too can see your dreams come to fulfillment. Everybody has a purpose in life and I strongly believe that if you have something you are supposed to do, it will never leave you alone. I have been writing since the 7th grade. I have wanted to publish for over 20 years. There have been times where I have had to take a break from writing, but I have always, always come back. It has never left me alone.
GH: Tell me about your life right now, as you no longer live in Tok.
I am a stay-at-home mom (six kids adopted, five still living at home). It is full of feeding five growing boys and keeping up with their sock piles. I live in the Pacific Northwest so that helps me feel close to Alaska. I have a full life. A satisfying life doing what I should be doing. Sometimes I do more than I should and sometimes I don't do what I should, but overall, I would have to say that living in Spokane, WA and raising our boys is exactly where we are supposed to be. I'm doing what I should be doing. There is great peace in that.
If you are interested in getting a copy of Growing Up Alaska for yourself, it is available on Amazon right now.