Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Homespun Appeal of Prayers for Sale

In her eighth novel, Prayers for Sale (St. Martin's Press, 2009), Sandra Dallas takes readers to the high country of Colorado during the Great Depression. Middle Swan is a rough and tumble mining town and at age eighty-six, Hennie Comfort is its oldest resident. Her daughter wants her to move to Iowa, but Hennie prefers living life "on the earth's backbone" of the Rocky Mountains.

As the book opens, Hennie meets a newcomer named Nit Spindle, a young woman of only seventeen years. As it turns out, they are like "slices from the same loaf" of bread, sharing not only a love of quilting and storytelling, but also a similar share of life's sorrows. Both are mothers who have lost babies. Their friendship becomes a sweet and healing force, powerfully felt. Among the many stories that Hennie tells is one related to the book's title. She recalls telling her second husband she was so happy she had nothing left to pray for. "Why I've got prayers to sell," she said, and as a joke, he made a sign that said "Prayers for Sale" and hung it on their fence.

I was most impressed by the near seamless way Sandra Dallas incorporated Hennie's stories from the past into the present time of the novel. There were no separate chapters or jolting flashbacks, just well-told tales enjoyed while the two woman sat together quilting, or hiking in search of berries to pick. And the language has just enough colloquial color to come alive without seeming overly folksy-cutsie. Someone is described as being "lonely as the devil at a revival meeting." A miner's coffin is called "a wooden suit." When Hennie gets depressed, she takes action to beat the "blue devils."

There is a homespun appeal to this book, a characteristic I have written about before (see my post from December, 2007). A read-alike that comes to mind is Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith, another novel featuring a strong mountain woman. I love books which take a dab of history and plunk down some "ordinary" salt-of-the-earth characters in its path. For instance, Hennie tells of the days of Prohibition in Middle Swan. Where once there had been eighteen saloons in town, there were instead sixteen soda parlors or candy stores. Passing as sweet shops, they could buy plenty of sugar and turn it into moonshine. History comes alive for me in the smallest details, such as Hennie's recollection of the pioneer days when she first came to Colorado and went visiting for supper, how everyone brought along their own forks because nobody had any extra. That's an image I won't soon forget.

"Your story heals me," Nit says to Hennie. Their friendship is mutually healing, and readers will also experience that healing, however vicariously via bibliotherapy. In the final chapters, Hennie faces a troubling matter she's been brewing over for years. All the colorful scraps of stories come together much like one of the quilts Nit and Hennie and the other women of Middle Swan assemble.

You've heard the old cliche about making lemonade when life gives you lemons. How about this one: "When it's raining pudding, hold up your bowl." So says Hennie on page 56. There's plenty of pudding, not to mention meat and potatoes, here between the covers of Prayers for Sale, and for that I am one grateful reader.

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