Volume XVI, Issue Two | June 2019
Someplace to Call Home
Someplace to Call Home, my fourth mid-grade novel, comes out in August. It’s for ages eight to 12. Here’s how Sleeping Bear Press describes it:
In 1933 what’s left of the Turner family—twelve-year-old Hallie and her two brothers—finds itself driving the back roads of rural America. The children have been swept up into a new migratory way of life.
America is facing two devastating crises: the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Hundreds of thousands of people in cities across the country have lost jobs. In rural America it isn’t any better as crops suffer from the never-ending drought. Driven by severe economic hardship, thousands of people take to the road to seek whatever work they can find, often splintering fragile families in the process.
As the Turner children move from town to town, searching for work and trying to cobble together the basic necessities of life, they are met with suspicion and hostility. They are viewed as outsiders in their own country. Will they ever find a place to call home? New York Times–bestselling author Sandra Dallas gives middle-grade readers a timely story of young people searching for a home and a better way of life.
I hadn’t planned on writing children’s books. Oh, I’d tried. After I published my first couple of novels, an artist approached me about using her illustrations for a juvenile book. I went to the library and checked out books on how to write for kids and gave it a try. It was awful.
Years later, an editor suggested I turn the title story of The Quilt That Walked to Golden, my history of quilting in Colorado and the West, into a children’s book. I wrote something, but when I sent it to my agent, she said, nice try, but children’s books had to be 5,000 words or 40,000 words. I’d written 10,000. I figured I was as capable of writing a kid’s book as I was of composing French poetry.
Shortly after that, however, I was approached by an editor at Sleeping Bear Press, who asked if I’d ever considered writing for children. Funny you should ask, I told her and sent her The Quilt That Walked to Golden knockoff. She liked it but said it had to be a little bit longer, like 30,000 words longer. That’s how The Quilt Walk came about.
I had a lot to learn about writing for kids, and almost every sentence of that first mid-grade book, it seemed, had to be rewritten. The second and third were easier, and I thought I was on a roll. Boy was I wrong. Someplace to Call Home started out as a family saga, and it didn’t work. My superb editor, Barb McNally at Sleeping Bear, sent me seven pages of what she thought the manuscript needed. In other words, I said when we talked on the phone, you want an entirely new book. Well…, she replied, too nice to say the manuscript stunk. Together, we worked up a new plot, using three of the characters and keeping the setting and time frame. Editors can be exasperating, but they are almost always right, and in this case, thanks to Barb and her encouragement, I think this is the best of my four mid-grade books.
At Home on the Range
I treasure every award and honor I’ve received, but there is something extra-special about the Wrangler Awards from the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. In April, I received a Wrangler in the juvenile book category for Hardscrabble. The event was colorful and exciting, and the people so kind that I felt at home, even in front of 1,300 of them.
The program lasted something like three hours, with 18 recognitions. The highlight was an award given to Kevin Costner. He was humble and self-depreciating, and who knew he had such a wonderful sense of humor. He told us when he was in grade school, he had a friend with a horse that he rode every day. He learned to run beside the horse, then jump on him and ride bareback around a corral. And he did tricks on horseback. At age six? Then Costner admitted the horse was a Shetland pony.
The awards program was meticulously planned, with a rehearsal even, and we were required to give our acceptance remarks—limited to one minute for the recipients of the book, film, and music awards—ahead of time so that they could be put on a teleprompter. With most awards, your name is called, and you go up on stage. Not here. A few minutes before my turn, someone came and got me and took me to a green room. (By the time I came back, my dinner had been taken away, but Bob saved my dessert.)
I was told where to stand behind a curtain until my name was announced. Then I went on stage and was given the award by John Wayne’s son and Will Rogers’s granddaughter. The audience was wonderful and very receptive. The award—a bronze statute of a man on horseback—was so heavy that someone had to carry it off the stage for me. Afterwards, when Bob was getting our coats, any number of well-wishers stopped to congratulate me. It was a wonderful event, the kind of evening that makes you vow to try to write something they’ll like enough to ask you to return.
My next adult novel, Westering Women, doesn’t come out until next year.
I’ll tell you about it later, but I want to share the cover. I think it’s gorgeous.
Read more about Westering Women »
The Mormon Handcart Migration
By Candy Moulton.
University of Oklahoma.
The worst Overland Trail disaster—worse than the Donner party tragedy or the Mountain Meadows massacre—was the Mormon handcart expedition of 1856. In one company alone, up to 170 men, women, and children out of some 600 to 700 participants died, mostly of starvation or exposure.
I wrote about the Mormon handcart expedition in my book True Sisters. It was fiction, of course. Candy Moulton’s The Mormon Handcart Migration is a compelling nonfiction account, perhaps the most objective I’ve ever read.
The handcarts were the idea of Brigham Young, head of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He believed the trek would take just 90 days from the Missouri River to Salt Lake City. So confident was Young that he suggested the pioneers needed only one change of clothes. Instead of riding in wagons, impoverished church immigrants, most from the British Isles, pushed handcarts filled with their belongings, five persons to each cart. “The Lord will own and bless it,” a high-ranking church official proclaimed of the venture.
The church sponsored 10 handcart expeditions over five years, all of them disasters due to poor planning and lack of support that led to devastating tragedy. The third and fourth groups, known as the Willie and Martin companies, ran into snow and cold and lack of food that led to the deaths of hundreds.
Trail historian Candy Moulton’s story of the handcarts is a an extraordinarily well researched account, heavy in detail but filled with pathos. She quotes liberally from the accounts of the pioneers. One mother told of waking beside her husband who had frozen to death during the night. Another wrote of peeling flesh off her son’s frozen feet. A rescuer mentioned the stench of one of the camps, where travelers dying of dysentery were too weak to clean up after themselves.
Moulton, who is not a Mormon although her husband is the descendent of handcart survivors, blames the arrogance of church officials for the debacle. They questioned the faith of wiser heads who warned the Willie and Martin companies they would run into snow if they left Iowa late in the summer. News of the deaths was kept quiet lest outsiders blame Young. Especially heart-breaking was Young’s insistence that wagons of church-owned goods had priority over the handcart victims. Food and supplies that should have been delivered to the starving pioneers went instead to teamsters who traveled west at the same time as the handcarts.
Perhaps because she is not a member of the church, Moulton did not feel pressure to write a faith-promoting book. The Mormon Handcart Migration is a hard-hitting, objective account of the Overland Trail disaster that may not please the faithful but brings credence to the story of a little-known western tragedy.
By Harriet Fish Backus.
West Margin Press.
Tomboy Bride, a first-person account of a remarkable young woman who moved to the Tomboy Mine near Telluride in 1906, was first published 1969. I reviewed it for the Denver Post back then and have always loved it.
Harriet Fish Backus’s story of life high in the mountains at the Tomboy, as well as a later posting in Leadville, details the trials and triumphs of mining camp women. This 50th anniversary edition, with a forward by Colorado author Pam Houston, is a welcome western classic back in print.