Volume XVI, Issue Three | September 2019
Westering Women Westering Women won’t be published until January, but I want to tell you about it now. I’m really excited about this book, because I thought about it for years but was never able to come up with a plot.
When I was a girl, I loved the Robert Taylor movie “Westward the Women,” about a man leading a group of brides to Oregon. I liked it because, despite the sappy love story (Taylor slaps the hysterical woman in one of those thanks-I-needed-that situations), the women were competent, not like the usual batch of filmdom’s western heroines. They were either temptresses or mindless stand-by-your-man types, who screamed and were paralyzed when faced with danger and had to be rescued. I wanted to write about the women whose diaries and narratives I read that show they were much different from the Hollywood clichés.
I couldn’t come up with a plot, however. My first attempt at Westering Women was a disaster. I had a cast of thousands, with no single character standing out. I whittled down the number of women in the second draft, but that was too broad, as well. My agent suggested I select one woman and write the story from her viewpoint. Her choice was Maggie, a dressmaker, a character I hadn’t considered very important. I would have preferred another woman, but as I began to flesh out Maggie’s story, I came to love her. She is generous and brave and a wonderful observer, but she is also realistic and has a tragic story of her own.
It’s February, 1852, and all around Chicago, Maggie sees the postings soliciting “eligible women” to travel to the gold mines of Goosetown. A young seamstress with a small daughter and several painful secrets, she has nothing to lose.
So she joins forty-three other women and two pious reverends on the dangerous 2000 mile journey west. None of them are prepared for the hardships they face on the trek through the high plains, mountains, and deserts. Or for the triumphs of finding strengths they did not know they possessed. And not all will make it.
As Maggie gets to know the other women, she soon discovers that she’s not the only one looking to leave dark secrets behind. And when her past catches up with her, it becomes clear a band of sisters will do whatever it takes to protect one of their own.
This book took a long time to write, and more than once, I wondered if I should pitch it and go on to something else. But I loved the characters, several of whom reminded me of Mattie in The Diary of Mattie Spenser. Besides Maggie, they include the indomitable Mary Madrid, the gentile Caroline Swain, and the illiterate and desperate young woman with the improbable name of Pennsylvania House, perhaps my favorite character of all. So like my women I persevered, although my task of sitting at a computer was a bit less daunting than walking the 2,000-mile Overland Trail.
Nice News from Women Writing the West
I’m thrilled that Hardscrabble, my third children’s book, is the winner of the Women Writing the West’s2019 Willa Literary Award in Children's Fiction and Nonfiction. The Patchwork Bride is a finalist for historical fiction. Awards will be presented at WWW’s annual conference in San Antonio in October. My daughter Dana is going with me.
Upcoming Book Signing: SATURDAY, SEPT 28, 2019 1 to 4 p.m. Barnes & Noble 9370 Sheridan Blvd., Westminster CO
Reviews of Someplace to Call Home
Of course, I’m including only the favorable reviews of Someplace to Call Home, which comes out this month. But then—knock on wood—there haven’t been any bad ones, at least not yet.
The year 1933 is a rough time for three kids to be on their own, but the Turners prove themselves capable. The rest of their family has passed away or disappeared, and 12-year-old Hallie, 16-year-old Tom, and 6-year-old Benny are driving west looking for work when their car breaks down on the side of the road, beyond affordable repair. Luckily, they land where they camp is owned by the Carlsons, a nice farming family that understands both what it means to struggle and what it's like to care for a child like Benny, since their daughter is similar. "His face wasn't like other babies' faces. As he grew older, he didn't seem to learn as quickly as other children." They make the orphans feel welcome as winter sets in. But will the rest of the community come to accept the Turners as more than squatters? It takes a near tragedy to find out. Dallas offers up her signature blend of compelling plot, vivid characters, and riveting history to both entertain and enlighten about a hard decade, though Benny, who evidently has Down syndrome, does come across as a plot device. Most main and secondary characters feel fully realized and three-dimensional, while the setting is drawn with delicate-but-vivid strokes and feels almost like its own character. This narrative is full of fascinating details about flour-sack dresses and bean sandwiches. Characters seem to default to white, with no mention of skin color. A story of the Great Depression that's both gritty and gratifying.
From the Chicago Public Library:
Dallas crafts an authentic, character-driven story about the American past… Despite the harshness of this time in history, Dallas’s focus on the children serves as a gentle introduction to the Great Depression. As in all good historical fiction, the dialogue and setting are accurate and natural. The plot is intentional and evenly paced; nothing is trite or modernized… VERDICT: This historical novel about the importance of family, belonging, and kindness will do well among young readers interested in the past.
This Tender Land
By William Kent Krueger Atria Books
William Kent Krueger could have spent the rest of his career writing his best-selling Cork O’Connor mystery series. But several years ago, he veered off into literary fiction with Ordinary Grace, his moving story of a young boy coping with tragedy. Now he’s written This Tender Land, which is even better.
It’s the story of four desperate orphans who flee a brutal Indian boarding school in Minnesota in search of safety. The four vagabonds are Moses, a mute Indian; Emmy, a golden-haired girl with special powers, and brothers Albert and Odie. Odie, whose real name is Odysseus, tells the story, which really is an odyssey, a canoe trip from Minnesota’s Gilead River to the Mississippi. “This Tender Land” is part Huck Finn, part loss of innocence, and a little bit thriller.
Because they know the Black Witch, the orphans’ name for the cruel headmistress, will pursue them, they take to the river instead of going overland. Their destination is undecided until Albert, the oldest of the boys and their leader, discovers a letter among the stolen documents from an aunt. The letter mentions money she sent for Albert and Odie’ care, money they never received. In fact, there are a number of letters from the families of students with gifts never given to the recipients. The boys realize the Black Witch has been scamming families.
The voyage is a series of adventures. From the first page to the somewhat complicated ending, This Tender Land is rich with graceful writing and endearing characters. The innocence of the children, the harshness of the times and the venality of life in a brutal institution are faithful to the 1930s. Like “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” this is a book for the ages.
This Boy’s War By Arnold Grossman Logis Books
What do you do if World War II is your fault?
“If it wasn’t for the Jews, there wouldn’t be a Hitler killing our boys over there,” a schoolmate taunts David Saperstein, a 13-year-old Teaneck, N.J., boy. ‘It’s your fault, you know that, don’t you?”
As one of the few Jews living in Teaneck in the early 1940s, young Saperstein is discriminated against almost daily by teachers and students, especially by members of the Black Cat Gang, a bunch of rowdies who make his life hell. Maybe he is responsible for the war, and if that’s true, maybe he should do something about it.
So Saperstein hatches a plan to stowaway as a soldier on an army ship headed for Europe and eventually Normandy. He succeeds in This Boy’s War, a gripping novel by Denver author Arnold Grossman. This is not just a tale of a young boy going to war but a telling account of what life is like for a Jewish boy in a world filled with hatred and discrimination. Some of the incidents are based on Grossman’s own childhood in Teaneck. The account is filled with pathos and humor and irony. Saperstein’s best friend on shipboard is another Jew—who happens to be black.
Saperstein is caught, but he manages to evade his superior officers and land on Normandy, where he becomes a hero. The climbing skills he learned to evade the Black Cat Gang allow him to scale a Normandy cliff and confront the Germans.
The story is improbable, of course (although there were underage boys who managed to enlist during WWII.) But it is believable. Saperstein is an endearing character and his coming of age story is both funny and sobering.