A.L. “Sandy” Sanderson really doesn’t follow the “natural order of things.” So when she published her first book at the age of 77, she thought it was perfectly fitting.
Sanderson, author of “Timber; Fire in the Pines,” will hold a book signing 11 a.m. Saturday, May 18, at Scout & Morgan Books in Cambridge.
“Timber” is set in the white pine forests of north central Minnesota in the late 1800s. Amid the rough conditions of a lumber camp in the timbered wilderness of that period, a compelling and complex relationship develops between the two unlikely protagonists and culminates in the tragic Great Hinckley Fire of 1894.
“It’s a story about survival in an environment without safety nets,” Sanderson said. “Adversity is prevalent as the main characters Sarah Stewart and Thor Nillson succeed against long odds as they conquer their past demons while forging a relationship and future together.”
“Timber” has personal connections to Sanderson’s family.
“Both my mother and father’s families were first-generation immigrants,” Sanderson said. “My paternal grandparents came to this part of the state from Sweden, and I lived on farms near Ogilvie and Hinckley for several years as a child. My maternal grandparents came from what today is eastern Germany and Russia. As an adult I owned a home in Aitkin and a summer cabin in Pine City.
“I not only feel connected to the area geographically and historically, but also emotionally. I am fascinated by what it must have been like to leave family, friends and homeland to come to a strange new country where you couldn’t even speak the language, knowing you would probably never go home again. It takes a kind of bravery that I’m not sure I would have had,” she added.
As Sanderson learned more about the Hinckley Fire, she felt compelled write a book.
“I think having grandparents new to this country, who also lived with uncertainty and hope, helped me create the characters in ‘Timber,’” Sanderson said. “As I learned more about the tragedy of the Hinckley Fire — it was such an intense historical event — that it called both to me and to the characters hiding in my imagination, waiting to spring to life on the pages of a book.”
“I married young and raised four children. I didn’t graduate from high school, so when my children were grown I decided to go back to school,” Sanderson said. “I got my GED in my late 30s, a BA in psychology from Macalester College when I was 43, and a JD from the University of Minnesota Law School when I was 51. A first novel at age 77 seems rather odd to people, but I was 51 when I graduated from law school, so acting outside of the box isn’t a new thing for me. I tend not to follow the natural order of things. But as has been true with other things I’ve done either too early or too late, things have had a way of working out.”
Three years ago Sanderson’s husband passed away, and her daughter, Susan Bissonette, invited her to live with her and her husband in Eden Prairie. Bissonette serves as Sanderson’s publicist.
“My mom has been a great support to me, and we’ve always done projects together,” Bissonette said. “My husband calls us Thelma and Louise or Lucy and Ethel, depending on our antics and adventures. Living together is an adjustment when one is used to being completely independent — but it has worked out for us. We’re quite different in temperament and in our approach to life. She’s much more quiet and reserved. I’m more gregarious and like to have people around more of the time, and she likes to spend time alone with her keyboard. Also, I’m more of a risk taker and she’s more deliberate.”
Sanderson has always enjoyed writing and playing with words and writing poems.
“Our farm outside of Ogilvie had a huge kitchen,” Sanderson said. “Before my mom put up new wallpaper she let me write poems all over the walls. Looking back I realize how unusual it was for my practical, work-worn mother to have allowed me to do something so frivolous. I’d like to say my writing is artsy and literary, but to be perfectly honest, I never seriously intended to become a published author.
“I began writing a novel because it seemed like a challenge, and the process kind of took hold of me. The stories came alive and my characters woke me up at night doing things I had no idea they would ever do. I kept writing without really thinking about ‘style.’ I just wrote the story,” she added.
Sanderson writes about things she can relate to.
“Anyone who is fortunate enough to reach their 70s and beyond has experienced life in a way that not every young person today can relate to,” Sanderson said. “We lived in a world without television, without cellphones, without central heating and perhaps even without indoor plumbing. Few of us were coddled or pampered, and most of us learned early on that we had to make our own beds — both literally and figuratively. My characters are tough, gritty and determined because those are the things I can relate to.”
Sanderson’s first novel, “The Last Dance,” follows much of her own history in terms of where she’s lived, visited, loved and hated. The story takes place between 1940 and the 1970s.
Sanderson said the story and the two main protagonists are fictional and have nothing to do with her actual life. “The Last Dance,” will be published in the fall of 2013.
Scout & Morgan Books is located at 114 Buchanan St. N., Cambridge, and can be reached at 763-689-2474. For more information on Sanderson, visit www.alsandysanderson.com.