There aren’t many people who can say they published a book, let alone at the age of 77. But then again, not many people go back to earn their GED while raising four young children, graduate from Macalester College magna cum laude at 44, or obtain a law degree at age 52. Clearly, A.L. Sandy Sanderson of Eden Prairie is not one to follow the pack.
“As I was growing up, she was the first feminist I ever knew,” says Sanderson’s daughter, Susan Bissonette, who serves as her mom’s book publicist. Today Sanderson has two books on the market: Timber: Fire in the Pines, which she first published in early 2013, and Last Dance, which just hit the shelves this fall.
North central Minnesota’s white pine region is the backdrop for both stories. Timber is a historical fiction that involves a Swedish lumberjack who’s come to America to seek his fortune and revenge, a young woman who disguises as a boy to work in a lumber camp and the great Hinkley fire of 1894. Bissonette describes it as a gritty adventure-filled saga set in a tangible world. “The characters are waiting—you have to hurry up and get back there,” she says of the way the book reads. Last Dance picks up 50 years later in the same fictionalized town.
Sanderson’s journey to becoming an author was a gradual process, one that began years ago. Although she grew up mostly in St. Paul, she spent a portion of her childhood outside Hinckley, where she wrote poetry for fun and explored the area devastated by the fire. She noticed the abandoned farms and the poor soil, and learned first-hand about the futility of farming in that region. “The history of that part of the state fascinates me,” says Sanderson, who later conducted extensive research at the Minnesota Historical Society while integrating these influences into her novel.
But despite her good grades as a kid, she never had encouragement at home to pursue her academic dreams. “Mom was this gifted little girl amidst dirt farmers who didn’t care about school,” Bisonette says. One day, Sanderson remembers overhearing two teachers arguing in the hallway about whether she should go to secretarial school or college. “No one else had ever given a hoot about my future,” she says, but these two teachers reminded her to aim high—a message she didn’t fully realize until a few years later, when she was raising kids at home without having finished high school. Deciding to go back to school as an adult was a big decision that eventually ended her marriage, but woke up a part of her that was wanting to live. “All this steam was building up, and then she just shot out like a rocket,” Bisonette says.
In the years after her schooling and law career, Sanderson began writing. She was inspired by her own Swedish ancestors who settled in the region, and knew she wanted to write an immigrant story. “The characters would wake me up doing something I didn’t expect; the stories came to life for me,” she recalls. But she never thought of publishing her stories until after her second husband passed away and she moved in with her daughter. “I always thought Mom has to have some sort of legacy, so I wanted to see that she could have this dream,” Bisonette says.
“This is absolutely my favorite chapter in my life,” Sanderson says. “I can do a lot of stuff, but this feels more like my core. … This is what I have, and if I don’t use and express that, then I will be done without having finished.”
When asked about the future, Sanderson smiles and says she has a few stories she’s letting “cook.” “I’m not the kind of person who can sit and twiddle her thumbs.”
Learn more about A.L. Sandy Sanderson’s books at alsanderson.com. Her titles are also available on Amazon.