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Read the newsletters from Sandra Dallas for news about upcoming books, stories, Sandra's Picks and reviews:

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Where Coyotes Howl

Volume XXIII, Issue One | March 2023

Some 40 years ago, I wrote a Denver Post review of the autobiography of a cowboy. In the early 20th century, he had ridden the range for an outfit, met and married a local girl, and gone to ranching with her. The story told the joys and sorrows of his life. What struck me was how ordinary his life was, how representative of hundreds, maybe thousands, of western settlers who acquired homesteads on the Wyoming and Colorado High Plains.

I gave the book away to a reader who’d written me about the review, but the story never left me. I think it sank into my subconscious, where it gestated, then finally bubbled up a few years ago with the idea that it might make a novel. I decided to locate a copy of the book, but that proved to be harder than I’d anticipated. I couldn’t remember its title or the name of the author. I didn’t recall whether he was in Wyoming or Montana. Little surprise I never found it. Finally, I gave up and decided to write my own version, which proved to be much different. What emerged was a story about a cowboy, Charlie Bacon, who meets a school teacher, Ellen Webster. They fall in love, marry, and go to ranching. It is the story of so many settlers. What makes Where Coyotes Howl different from many of those people is the deep love that Charlie and Ellen have for each other, a love that never fails them.

A writer always says that her current book is her favorite. But I think in the case of Where Coyotes Howl, this really is my favorite of my books. I’m not sure why. I love writing about the challenges western women faced, one reason why my previous favorite was The Diary of Mattie Spenser. And I’m pleased that it is about the real West, not the mythic West of so many novels. I love the characters, not just Charlie and Ellen, but their neighbors. They include a prostitute who marries a rancher and becomes Ellen’s best friend, a neighbor family whose greatest joy is their mentally-challenged daughter, and Ellen’s sister, a wealthy Midwestern lady who nonetheless understands Ellen’s love for Charlie and the God-forsaken country Ellen lives in.

One of the reasons I am so close to this book is I wrote it when my husband was ill. He was in the hospital, then in rehab, and when he finally came home, COVID has just made its appearance, and he was housebound for weeks. I wrote early each morning, before I went to stay with him during his confinement and finished the book about the time he was fully recovered.

Reviewers seem to like the book, too. Here is the review from Booklist:

Dallas' (Westering Women, 2020) blunt, brutal…explores the mythic soul of the American West and the endless flatlands of early-twentieth-century Wyoming through a female lens. Ellen arrives from Iowa to teach school but quickly falls in love with ranch hand Charlie Bacon. Affable by nature, she befriends women for miles around: Ruth, a talented quilter hiding her bruises; Gladys, a generous former prostitute with a green thumb; Frances, a loner whose blunt nature belies her desire for human connection. In time, Ellen bears quiet witness to both their small joys and overwhelming sadness, including her own, as motherhood eludes her in deeply tragic ways. Where Coyotes Howl relies on its characters rather than on its plot, but it works. The women aren't parodies. Their hardships pile up as thick and fast as a Wyoming blizzard, and readers can’t help but develop empathy for their trials. Life’s cruelties run the gamut: domestic violence, mental illness, sexual assault, suicide, and the deaths of many children. These numerous trigger warnings shouldn't dissuade a potential reader; they simply depict the misfortunes that punctuate lives filled also with love, kindness, and grace.

 

RMQM’s Log Cabin Show

I love Log Cabin quilts, the red centers of the squares that represent the hearth of the home, the way the blocks are put together to form designs with such intriguing names as Sunlight and Shadows. So I was excited when the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum announced its own Log Cabin show, which will be held from April 17 through July 15. (200 Violet St., unit 140, Golden, CO. Open M-S 10-4, Sunday 11-4.)


I’m a pretty crummy quilter, but I decided to submit a Log Cabin quilt I made several years ago as an entry, and it was accepted! Not because of the workmanship, I have to say, but because it’s different. Yes see, my quilt squares are not strips of fabric with red centers but depictions of real log cabins. Most are from Colorado Ghost Towns and Mining Camps, which I wrote and Povy illustrated. Here is one of the squares. It’s the Eldorado Hotel, the first hotel in Denver, built in 1858.

 
These dear little girls are daughters of my friend Murat, in Bodrum, Turkey.
These dear little girls are daughters of my friend Murat, in Bodrum, Turkey.
 

Sandra’s Picks

Out Here On Our Own By J.J. Anselmi University of Nebraska Press.

I used to stay in Rock Springs when I did stories on trona mining for Business Week. It was a pretty grim town, with crowding and noise and crime. I remember one mine manager telling me that it was particularly difficult for wives, who spent all their time at home. Since there was a labor shortage, I suggested maybe he could solve two problems with one solution: hire women. He wouldn’t do that.

I liked this book because the author interviewed average people, not academics.

Rock Springs residents have a love-hate relationship with their town. They hate the 40-below winters, the rapes and other crime, the crowding and the high prices of Wyoming’s boom-and-bust economy. But they love the freedom of the open spaces surrounding the town, with cliffs and valleys and golden prairie grass. One visitor said it looked like the desert where Jesus and Mohammad were born. “Rock Springs is a place that endlessly fascinates and endlessly hurts me,” says an anonymous resident in J.J. Anselmi’s captivating book of quotes from Wyoming men and women, residents and vagrants. Some are identified, others not.

Rock Springs has been through more boom-and-bust cycles in the past half-century than perhaps any other western town. Thousands of workers come to get rich working the oil and gas fields, and coal and trona mines. They crowd into tents and trailers when they can’t find apartments, then leave the town depleted when they depart for the next boom. The work is hard and dangerous. “You go to work each day hoping to hell this isn’t the day the good Lord means for you to get yours,” says a worker. Perhaps that’s why men fill the bars, drinking and fighting and giving Rock Springs its bad reputation.

Anselmi’s quotes capture the essence of Rock Springs in a way that a dozen scholars with their theories and studies couldn’t. He doesn’t attempt to psychoanalyze but lets the quotes stand on their own. Unfortunately, the author appears to have edited the quotes—only Barack Obama speaks in complete sentences. Slang and grammatical errors might have made the remarks more realistic. Still, Anselmi lets the residents—not the professors or journalists—tell the real story of Rock Springs.

 

Double the Lies By Patricia Raybon Tyndale.

Denver author Patricia Raybon’s amateur sleuth Annalee Spain was an instant hit in Raybon’s first mystery, All That is Secret. Annalee is a 1920s detective, a black woman, who lives in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood and must deal not only with crime but with racial prejudice. After all, this is the heyday of the KKK.

In Double the Lies, the second mystery in Raybon’s series, Annalee befriends a crying white woman she encounters in the library, lending her a handkerchief, then accompanying her home. There, the two discover the body of the woman’s husband, a barnstormer. Police find Annalee’s handkerchief and want to pin the murder on her. But an officer says he’ll hold off arresting her if she can find the real killer. She’s given only days.

Solving the crime takes Annalee to a Denver airshow. When police spot her, she hides in an airplane, only to become the reluctant passenger when the pilot takes off for Estes Park. The pilot is the brother of the dead man, and he is smitten with Annalee. Annalee is drawn to him, too, although she is promised to Jack, a preacher. Jack, however, has disappeared.

Double the Lies is an intriguing mystery, with lots of twists and turns that take Annalee by air to Estes and eventually Telluride. What makes it so compelling is not just the story but Raybon’s depiction of the chilling life of a black woman in the 1920s. Every aspect of Annalee’s life is dictated by her color. She wants to find out about some paintings but can’t go to the Denver Art Museum because it doesn’t admit blacks. Her relationship with the white pilot beings the wrath of the Klan. Because she’s black, she could be found guilty of murder with no more evidence than a handkerchief. Raybon’s book is not just a mystery but a study of what life was like for a black woman in 1920s Denver.

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