My Mom, My Inspiration
Volume VI, Issue Two | June 2011
My mother, Harriett Dallas, was the literary equivalent of a stage mother. She dragged her friends to my signings, pulled my books from bookstore shelves and placed them face out for better visibility, and she often interrupted my conversations with others on politics or business or whatever to ask, “Sandra, what’s your next book about?” She was my most loyal fan. But more important than that, Mom was an inspiration. There is little question that the strength and integrity in the female characters in my novels come from my mother. She contributed her own story to one of my books. When I was young, Mother often talked about the summer of 1933, when, newly married, she and Dad lived with his parents on a farm in Harveyville, Kansas. That was the Great Depression, and money was scarce. One day a neighbor said he had a day’s work in the fields and he’d pay a dollar for it. Dad and his brother flipped a coin to see who’d get the job. Dad won, and he worked so hard that he finished up by noon and made just 50 cents. In our family, 1933 was known as the 50-cent summer. That story was the inspiration for my novel The Persian Pickle Club. Mom’s legacy to books and reading go well beyond a daughter who is an author, however. When she was 13, my older sister, Donna, died of polio. That was in 1948. She’d been visiting our grandparents in Illinois, and Mom and Dad flew back there to be with her, arriving only minutes before she died. Accompanying my sister’s body on the train home to Denver, Mom searched for a way to memorialize Donna and decided to establish a library in her honor at our church, Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church.
Mom wasn’t a librarian. In fact, she’d never gone to college. But she taught herself librarianship. She started the library with my sister’s books, many of them Nancy Drew mysteries. At first, the books were donated by people cleaning out their houses. Then Mom got the idea of asking for donations in memory of loved ones who’d died. In fact, she insisted the library not be named for my sister but be called only the Memorial Library. The library today stocks hundreds, maybe thousands, of books, from children’s books to political and religious tomes, novels, travel books, and even a few picture books. And of course, it has all of my novels. Under Mom’s direction, the library was self-supporting through donations and memorial gifts, and just days before she died in 2001, Mom was honored by the Association of Church and Synagogue Libraries for developing techniques picked up by other religious libraries.
Although she was 88 when she died, Mother was as active as she’d always been in the library, selecting books, ordering and cataloguing them, making sure they were returned. The last conversation she had before she died was with a member of her committee about the future of the library. She was so closely identified with the Memorial Library that at her funeral at Montview, my brother, Michael, began his eulogy with “If any of you have overdue library books…”
When I was on my book tour of the Midwest last month, I visited the Mormon Trail Museum in Omaha (where I was greeted by a classmate from East High School in Salt Lake City.) It is a superb facility, and anyone who cares about Overland Trail history ought to visit it. In next month’s Piecework, I’ll tell you why I’m interested in the Mormon Trail. —SD
New England to Gold Rush California: The Journal of Alfred and Chastina W. Rix
Edited by Lynn A. Bonfield. Arthur H. Clark Co.
We’re all voyeurs. Who among us doesn’t love to read somebody else’s intimate letters or better yet, journals? New England to Gold Rush California is unique because it’s a double journal, kept by both a husband and wife, just after their 1849 wedding.
They wrote in it, alternating entries, for five years, and the entries give a picture of life in the 1850s, including the couple’s views of marriage. In the beginning, they were almost equals, but after their son was born, they assumed traditional roles. In fact, Alfred once wrote a friend, “Woman’s life is not in the world but at home.” And boring, he might have added. Chastina seemed to agree, although she didn’t like her role much. “Done some of the forty unnamable things which belong to house hold affairs,” she confided to the journal.
While the two apparently were close in the first years—Alfred has coy references to sex and Chastina’s monthly periods—but as time went on, he made decisions without much input from his wife, including his decision to go to California. She eventually joined him, discovering as did most wome