Sandra Dallas has made a career writing about strong women in the American West. About their kinship and courage in the face of unimaginable hardship. About their genius in solving seemingly insurmountable problems to survive.
Now in True Sisters, the Denver-based writer has placed her characters in what she calls "the single greatest tragedy in the history of America's westward expansion." The work of historical fiction, which Dallas will read from and sign May 17 at 7 p.m. at The King's English Bookshop in Salt Lake City, recounts in vivid detail the ill-fated, 1,300-mile trek from Iowa City, Iowa, across Wyoming's high plains of the Martin Handcart Co., which arrived in Salt Lake City in December 1856 having lost a fourth of its 650 members to hypothermia, starvation and exhaustion.
Dallas spent her teenage years in Salt Lake City, and remembers being impressed by the massive Torleif Knaphus sculpture at Temple Square that depicts a stoic handcart pioneer and his family.
She is not a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but says she always felt compelled to write a book borrowing from Mormon history. Her fascination with the handcart companies conceived by Brigham Young as an inexpensive way to get penniless immigrants to Zion grew after she read Devil's Gate. David Roberts' brutal account of the expeditions takes Young and other LDS leaders to task for what he characterizes as gross miscalculations that essentially led many poor European converts to their deaths.
Dallas, however, says she was less interested in assigning blame for the tragedy than in exploring the lives of early Mormon women whose stories haunted her.
"I hoped to portray them not as martyrs, but as real flesh and blood people who found joy in their religion but cursed it, too, who starved and froze but who blessed the Lord for leading them to Zion" she writes in the book's acknowledgements.
What results is a tale of catastrophe, but also one of triumph and the power of both faith and friendship.
Dallas' characters include sisters Ella and Nannie, Scottish converts to the LDS Church. Ella, accompanied by her husband Andrew, is pregnant with her first child, while Nannie, the younger of the two, joins her sister after having been left at the altar by Levi, who reappears as a member of the company, too, with the new wife he jilted Nannie to marry.
Anne, a woman of means in England who refuses to join the new church despite her husband John's fascination with it, ends up on the trek after John deceives her by selling the family tailoring business to finance their journey.
Louisa is an earnest young woman swept into a hasty marriage by the charismatic yet self-righteous missionary Thales. Jessie, Louisa's friend, is drawn by her sense of adventure to accompany her two brothers overseas.
None of the women are based on real characters, Dallas says, but she researched the event exhaustively, relying heavily on journals and other historical documents available through the LDS History Library and Archives.
In addition, historians Fred E. Woods and Will Bagley read drafts of her work and helped her correct errors or misunderstandings that may have made True Sisters less credible.
Her account at times is excruciating to read. The women starve and freeze and worse, watch helplessly as their children suffer the same fate.
They are beholden to men whose decisions and actions they may never question. They struggle with the concept of polygamy but recognize they are powerless.
Nannie, for example, finds herself courted anew by Levi, who wants to take her as his second wife until her feet rot away from the relentless cold and must be amputated.
Anne watches helplessly as an icy Platte River sweeps away her infant son as her family crosses. The child is rescued only to later freeze to death hungry in her arms.
Yet amid such tragedy there is also irony and humor in the book. There is prayer, song, friendship and sacrifice made bearable by shared faith.
"They believed in what they were doing and really believed God was with them," Dallas says. "That's what got them through."
She considers the story of the Martin Handcart Co. one of the most gripping in the history of the American West, and hopes through her strong women characters she can bring a new dimension to its retelling.
Women such as those in "True Sisters" were essential to what the West became. Their story is the story of all of us, Dallas says.
"Someone else may have felt pressure to tell a more faith-promoting story; I felt I could be more objective, more real," she says. "I hope these women can be seen as the human beings they were."
Sandra Dallas reads from and signs True Sisters
When • May 17 at 7 p.m.
Where • The King's English Bookshop, 1511 S. 1500 East Salt Lake City