It's hard to know what to praise first in this book: the research, the structure or the surefooted word choice. The foreshadowing is nicely judged, too. Hints slip in scarcely noticed. They don't give the game away.
Sandra Dallas is a journeywoman writer, the creator of seven earlier novels including Tallgrass, The Persian Pickle Club and New Mercies. Her experience shows. She writes women's historical fiction, a genre often derided, but her carefully chosen details keep her from slipping anywhere near a reader sighing, "Oh, this old stuff again."
Dallas invents a tough-as-old-boots Colorado mining town called Middle Swan. Think Silverton or Leadville for a parallel. The protagonists are 86-year-old Hennie Comfort, a strong, smart woman whose history dates back to the Civil War and 17-year-old newlywed Nit Spindle who has just moved to the high country. "She was a new made woman, not much more than a girl," Hettie thinks.
They meet when the younger woman sees a sign saying "Prayers for Sale" on Hennie's gate and asks to buy an intercession. Hennie assures her it's just a joke, that prayers are free.
Patching plays a crucial part in the book's structure and in the lifesaving activity of its principal characters: quiltmaking. Dallas reveals in her foreword that the book started life as a series of short stories about Colorado history, and her agents talked her into turning it into a novel. Consequently, the reader gets the satisfaction of a moving, coherent narrative with the variety of short stories. It's a clever trick to pull off.
It also allows the author to pull in tall tales like the one about a horse that drowned inside a bar.
Dallas takes on a substantial chunk of history. Hennie's first story starts after the Civil War with cruelty as wild as in Charles Frazier's masterful Cold Mountain. She offers vignettes of Hennie crossing the country by wagon train and moves up to the novel's present, which is the Great Depression.
She offers set pieces among the women of Middle Swan, which shows how quilting sustains them with color and pattern in a punishing climate and how their elaborate manners are used, sometimes for cutting and sometimes for nurturing.
Names of objects and turns of phrase keep the narrative fresh. For instance, moonshine is called tanglefoot or kill-devil. Paisley cloth is Persian pickle or Persian pear.
This is a book that will be a lasting pleasure, one that is likely to stay in print for a long time. It would be a winner for book clubs or for reading and dreaming over while tucked away in the mountains.