by Alicia Rudnicki, Library Mix
When the thermometer dips below zero, bundling up in a quilt and reading a Sandra Dallas novel is the thing to do. Like a cup of hot chocolate, it warms the heart as well as the body.
Tough lives, dark secrets
This isn’t to say that Dallas writes cozy stories. The lives of her characters are relentlessly tough and often haunted by dark secrets. They are rugged survivors of difficult times such as the U.S. Civil War and the Great Depression.
And they are scrappy inhabitants of harsh landscapes, including the imaginary Colorado mining town of Middle Swan (based on the real town of Breckinridge) that comes to life in Prayers for Sale.
It is partly their kindness, concern for others, good humor, and powerful connection to community that make Dallas’s central characters so appealing.
A step into the past
The author’s deep knowledge of Rocky Mountain history—as well as her keen ear for the language of the times and places she writes about—help her readers step into the past with ease.
In Prayers for Sale, 86-year-old Hennie Comfort befriends newlywed Nit Spindle, who lives in a chilly, one-room log cabin.
Nit, as her name implies, is a “little thing,” barely beyond girlhood. Hennie is known for being a mother hen and a balm to all around her. She takes the lonely Nit under her wing.
It is the 1930s, and hard times are all around. Nit’s equally young husband is lucky to have a job even if it is a dangerous one.
Dangers of gold dredging
Nit’s husband labors on a gold boat—called a dredge—that clanks up and down a manmade pond fed by the Swan River. The dredge panics miners’ wives if it becomes silent during the workday, because that often signals an accident.
“Dredging was dangerous work. A man could get caught up in the bucket line and lose a finger or worse. More than one worker had died when he touched the electric. In winter, the decks and gangplank froze and a man might lose his footing—or maybe get pushed—sliding into the icy water. With his heavy boots and coat, he would sink into the dredge pond with barely a cry.”
Hennie introduces Nit to the best mountain trails for picnicking and picking berries. She also introduces Nit to her quilting group.
A crazy quilt of a tale
“A quilt circle’s like a crazy quilt,” Hennie explains to Nit. “You got all kinds in it. Some members are the bright pieces of velvet or brocade, show-offish, while others are bitty scraps of used goods, hoping you don’t notice them. But without each and every one, the quilt would fall apart.”
Prayers for Sale is, in itself, something of a crazy quilt made up of numerous tales of local lore that Hennie shares with Nit. Old age will soon force her to leave Middle Swan, so Hennie is concerned about keeping the town’s history alive.
“Hennie was pleased that Nit remembered and knew that the girl had a good mind for the stories. She would indeed pass them on.”
Both women know the agony of losing a child. So when Nit becomes pregnant, Hennie quietly becomes her guardian angel—the kind of non-judgmental, helpful friend for whom we all long.
There are a number of surprises in Prayers for Sale including the return of Tom Earley, who suffers heartbreak in The Diary of Mattie Spenser.
Characters as old friends
In a 2009 interview with Maw Books Blog, Dallas said, “I don’t like letting characters go, so I give them walk-on roles in subsequent novels. Prayers for Sale is set in 1936, because that was the only year that worked for bringing back characters from previous books. I like using them because they’re old friends.”
Prayers for Sale, which reached The New York Times fiction bestseller list shortly after its publication last April, will be issued in paperback this February.
Publication of the author’s ninth novel, Whiter than Snow, is set for this coming April.
The setting for Whiter than Snow, is another imaginary Swan River town called Swandyke. The novel takes place in the 1920s, just 16 years before Prayers for Sale. It will be interesting to see if any of Dallas’s previous characters are woven into this story.
Perhaps, the hardscrabble fictional towns and characters of the Swan will be mapped by literary critics someday, much the same as William Faulkner’s quirky Deep South creation, Yoknapatawpha County.