Sandra Dallas' novel 'True Sisters' tells of pioneer women

Published: Saturday, May 12 2012 3:00 p.m. MDT

Sandra Dallas has always been interested in women's history, especially in the West, and women in Salt Lake City intrigued her.

"I read stories of these women and I wanted to recapture what these women went through," Dallas, of Colorado and a former Business Week bureau chief, said in an interview with the Deseret News. "There was this great sense of joy and sacrifice … and the sense that something greater was going on."

In her new novel, "True Sisters" (St. Martin's Press, $24.99), Dallas explores through the eyes of four women what it might have been like for women in the Martin Handcart Company.

Dallas, who is known for her historical fiction, including her recent novels "Whiter Than Snow" and "The Bride's House," uses the experiences of real women from the company for her four main characters.

All four are immigrants from Europe, where they joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Ella is pregnant and is on the journey with her husband, Andrew, and sister Nannie, who was left heartbroken in Scotland by Levi only to discover he's in their company.

Anne didn't join the LDS Church with her husband, John, who sold the family's tailor business to finance the trip.

Louisa is married to Thales, the charismatic missionary who taught her family the gospel and who is a leader in the company that pushes their family to set an example. Jessie, Louisa's friend, came with her two brothers, and Jessie befriends Maud, who is widowed early in the trek west.

"True Sisters" starts as they are leaving Iowa City in the summer of 1856 and tells the story of the ill-fated handcart company that left too late in the season through to their rescue on the trail and arrival in Salt Lake City. The women reach out to help each other through the journey.

It was while Dallas lived in Salt Lake City as a teenager that her interest was piqued in the Mormon handcart pioneers. Her father, who worked for the federal government, was transferred to Utah for three years in the 1950s. She attended Olympus for one year and then East High School before her family moved back to Denver. It was while she was in Utah that she saw the handcart statue on Temple Square and started her interest in the pioneers.

To research "True Sisters," she read available journals from members of the Martin Handcart Company, other books and resources about the company and European converts to the LDS Church and consulted historians who specialize in that period of Utah's history, including Fred Woods, a professor of church history at Brigham Young University, and Will Bagley.

She also visited Devil's Gate, where she visited the church's Mormon Handcart Historic Site. And the feelings of deep respect and reverence were similar to those she had while visiting the Lincoln Memorial and the Civil War museum in Georgia.

"I tried pushing one of the handcarts," Dallas said. "I got about 50 feet and thought, 'How could they do this?’ ” especially when many of the women were pregnant or were carrying small children.

Don't expect something similar to the Work and the Glory series, "Seventeen Miracles" or like the stories told in church in "True Sisters."

"I didn't want to write a faith-promoting story," said Dallas, adding that she didn't want to "sugar-coat" any of the experiences.

She does develop engaging characters, and the women are likable as they face trial after heart-wrenching trial along the trail, including losing loved ones.

However, it is a work of fiction based on a true story, and some elements did cause a few instances of trying to sort fact from fiction in the events along the trail.

Dallas said she tried to be true to facts of the trail stories, but there were some things that weren't included in the journals, including what was said at the regular trail meetings and polygamy, which comes up in several of her characters' lives.

"The journals don't talk about polygamy," Dallas said, adding that she figured it was something that would be on the minds of many women.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints discontinued the practice of polygamy in the 1890s. Her earlier drafts included more about polygamy but were edited out after consulting with historians.

As a Presbyterian, Dallas did have some trepidation writing about Mormon pioneers.

"Was I being presumptuous? Was I an intruder?" Dallas said, but did continue to write as she felt it was a story that needed to be told. "It's a story that moves us all."

Through her research she said it's interesting to her how many kept the faith even after the hardships of crossing the Plains.

If you go ...

What: Sandra Dallas book signing

When: Thursday, May 17, 7 p.m.

Where: The King's English, 1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City

Web: kingsenglish.com, www.sandradallas.com

EMAIL: rappleye@desnews.com

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