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The Last Midwife Debuts Sept. 29

Volume X, Issue Three | September 2015

Publication date for my fourteenth adult novel (can it really be that many?) is Sept. 29. Here’s the way St. Martin’s Press describes the book:

It is 1880, and Gracy Brookens is the only midwife in a small Colorado mining town, where she has delivered hundreds, maybe thousands, of babies in her lifetime. She is a gifted and important resource for the women of her hardscrabble community, a position earned through wisdom and trust. Most women in Swandyke couldn’t even imagine getting through their pregnancy and labor without Gracy by their sides.

But everything changes when a baby is found dead…and the evidence points to Gracy as the killer.

Gracy knows she didn’t commit the crime. But her innocence isn’t quite that simple, either. She knows things, and that’s dangerous. Invited into her neighbors’ homes during their most intimate times, she can’t help what she sees or hears. A woman sometimes says things in the birthing bed, when life and death seem suspended within the same moment. Gracy has always tucked those revelations away, even the confessions that have cast shadows on her heart.

With her friends taking sides and a trial looming, Gracy must decide whether it’s worth risking everything to prove her innocence. And she knows that her years of discretion may simply demand too high a price now…especially since she’s been keeping more than a few dark secrets of her own.

The idea for The Last Midwife came from my editor, Jen Enderlin, at lunch in New York a couple of years ago. I was casting about for a book idea, when she suggested I write about a midwife. Great idea, I told her, but privately, I thought, oh, ick. Going through childbirth twice was enough. I didn’t want to write about it. And the truth was that was 50 years ago, and I didn’t remember it all that well.

Jen has great instincts, however, so I began reading everything I could find about midwifery in the 19th and early 20th century. Nothing leaped out at me. Then one day, I picked up The Tenmile Range, a book of poetry by Breckenridge writer Belle Turnbull. I’d known Belle and her roommate, Helen Rich, when I lived in Breckenridge in the early 1960s. In fact, I used Helen’s books and notes when I wrote Prayers For Sale.

I turned to a poem titled “In Those Rude Airs.” It’s about a mountain midwife called the Sagehen. I thought, “That’s it!” I’ll call my midwife the Sagehen and set the book in Summit County. The story fell into place after that.

Let me tell you where the main character’s name came from. Names are very important to me. The characters don’t come alive until I’ve found a name that works. I had a heck of a time with Susan in The Bride’s House. She was my generation, and I wanted an appropriate name. But I knew Carols and Judys and Barbaras, and whenever I tried one of those names, a friend’s face popped up. I knew Susans, too, but finally settled on that name. Still, it never seemed quite right, and writing Susan’s story in that book was one of the hardest things I’ve tackled. I blame the name.

Brookens was my grandfather’s middle name. So that seemed a good choice. I like using family names—McCauley, for instance. And as you may know, I usually have a Tom in my books (generally an exemplary fellow) because my husband’s middle name is Thomas. I came across the name Gracy at San Francisco Plantation in Louisiana. Gracy was on a list of slaves posted in the slave quarters. The spelling struck me, and I put it on a list of names I keep on my computer. It jumped out at me when I was searching for a name for my midwife. –SD


Praise from Kirkus for The Last Midwife


Author: Sandra Dallas

In 1880, a wealthy mine owner in a small Colorado town accuses the local midwife of murdering his infant son. Gracy Brookens is put on trial, forced to defend not only herself, but everything she represents. On one side are the local doctor and the undertaker who reject Gracy as a superstitious, untrained quack; on the other, generations of mountain women who pass down knowledge of herbs and other folk remedies in addition to birthing babies. The trial polarizes the community and portrays the age-old struggle between progress and tradition. While the tension and "legal thriller" aspect of the novel are well-paced, its true strength lies in a deep commitment to setting and time period. The mining town way of life is clearly hard, but Dallas’ characters live with dignity and maintain their senses of wonder at the beauty of the natural world. Gracy herself is refreshingly human, and the poor mountain people she helps are expertly sketched to be interesting, believable characters rather than mere types (with the exception of the wealthy Halleck family). As one might expect, the women carry the story, but the men, though perhaps more flawed, are still significant and sympathetic. Dallas (A Quilt for Christmas, 2014, etc.) clearly spent time researching midwifery practices of the time period, and the details of childbirth, both successful and complicated, are unflinching but also show great respect for women like Gracy who truly have a calling. This is a novel that celebrates women: their unbreakable bonds, their unselfish love for their children, their incredible capacity to endure. Like Gracy, the novel may seem delicate but its strength is in the layers. A period piece with a contemporary soul.


Povy’s Cannabis Cookbook

Okay, enough about me. Let me tell you about MY daughter. Povy Kendal Atchison and her friend Robyn Griggs Lawrence are publishing a gourmet marijuana cookbook. Cannabis Kitchen Cookbook: Feel-Good Food for Home Cooks will be released Sept. 21 by Skyhorse Publishing. It is filled with gourmet recipes for cooks who want to include cannabis among their ingredients.

Robyn tells how to make cannabis oils and what types of marijuana to use for different tastes or purposes—recreational, medical, or whatever. The recipes come from well-known Colorado chefs, and they are terrific. I know because I’ve tasted some of them—the pot-free versions, of course, since marijuana is not my generation’s drug of choice. (We preferred liquor.) All the recipes, incidentally, can be made with or without cannabis.

This is a complete cookbook with recipes for appetizers, salads, entrees, juices, morning beverages, and snacks.

And of course the photography is gorgeous. I’d say that even if Povy weren’t my daughter.


Willa Winner

A Quilt for Christmas is the winner of the 2015 Women Writing the West Willa Award for historical fiction, while Red Berries, White Clouds, Blue Sky is a finalist in the Willa children’s/young adult category. Awards will be presented Oct. 10 at WWW’s annual conference in Oregon. Sandra has won three previous Willas. In addition, Red Berries, White Clouds, Blue Skies was a finalist for the Colorado Book Award and the Western Writers of America Spur Award. And Red Berries, White Clouds, Blue Skies is a finalist for the High Plains Book Award in the children’s books category. High Plains winners will be announced in Billings, Mont., Oct. 3.


Sandra’s Picks


By Sue Grafton. Putnam.

You wonder if Sue Grafton is sorry she started her alphabet series of mysteries. It might have seemed a good idea with A is for Alibi or even G is for Gumshoe. But by the time she got to L is for Lawless, she could see the rest of her life stretching out ahead of her.

Oh, well, she got rich off the mysteries—and we’ve had some great reads over the years. But now that she’s down to X with only two more to go, she must be facing withdrawal.

In X, her sleuth, Kinsey Millhone, is approached by a wealthy woman to find an ex-con she claims is her son. Kinsey finds him, then discovers the “mother” gave her a fake name and can’t be found.

At the same time the widow of a detective Kinsey never liked much asks for help with her husband’s estate. Turns out Kinsey had misjudged him, and now she’s on the trail of a man she thinks is a psychopath.

Grafton is always a good read. The story is sharp, and over the years, Kinsey has become our friend. One thing I like about the alphabet series is the mysteries are set in the pre-cell phone days, so Kinsey does not spend her time worrying that she’s out of cell phone range, and she doesn’t solve crimes by using a computer. Grafton started the mysteries in the old days, and Kinsey hasn’t gotten a whole lot older. That keeps the secondary characters vital, since Kinsey’s landlord, in his eighties in the first book, would have been something like 120 now. And if Grafton had allowed Kinsey to age, she’d be on Medicare. –SD


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