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Dallas, "True Sisters" (reviewed by Marilyn Brown) Options · View
Posted: Tuesday, April 16, 2013 12:49:35 AM

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Title: True Sisters
Author: Sandra Dallas
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Genre: Novel
Year Published: 2012
Number of Pages: 341
ISBN: 978-1-250-00502-1 (hardcover)
ISBN: 078-1-4668-0224-7 (e-book)
Price: $24.99

Reviewed by Marilyn Brown for the Association for Mormon Letters

I'm always nervous reading the work of someone who is not Mormon, but decides to tell one of our amazing stories. What is there about the gruesome, bloody, or polygamous episodes of Mormon history that so fascinates (or titillates) us all that we are willing to spend many hours in research, movie-making, or novel-writing to delve into scenes of such harrowing reality? For the answer to that we can peruse Grimm's grim fairy tales, or TV's CSI. We all seem to pant dog-eyed in the face of horror--perhaps because it's about someone else? And the trials of the Willie and Martin handcart companies are no exception.

I find it ironic that this story was also my choice as the subject of my first Mormon novel thirty-four years ago. It was titled: "And Some Must Die." (And it did.) I signed a contract with Bookcraft's dapper Englishman editor, George Bickerstaff, and it almost got published until I withdrew it because I didn't think it was good enough. Part of my reticence may have occurred when George put me in touch with a cowboy who could offer accurate information about mules and handcart construction. Though I made a gallant effort and paid the fellow $200, it took only one session in his Mt. Olympus home for me to discover that he was an alcoholic. I ran. And eventually decided to run from the novel, too.

Why? I often berated myself for cancelling a viable publishing contract, as it took me about twenty years after that to enter into another one.

The answer to my "why" relates to some of the problems Sandra Dallas has with the same material. It is very heavy material, indeed. Sandra, a bestselling author, certainly did a much better job than I did with this subject. But it still deals with a thirteen hundred mile trek of travail and death, a structure which offers repeated tragedies, and little joy.

Sandra is definitely a professional. With clarity and apparent ease, she executes an admirable fiction--funneling true incidents into the lives of four diverse women, documenting in clean prose how they influence each other and become "true sisters." I did feel that at times there were more characters than necessary, diluting deeper one-on-one involvements. And the men in her story generally came across as pious, stubborn and authoritative, although it is historically true that one of the men used "whipping" language to urge them on. "Come on! If you are righteous, you can do it!" The people seemed battered not only by the weather, but sometimes by insensitive leaders. To be fair, there was some repentance, but even that didn't begin to override the grief.

Mormons as a rule don't like fictionalizing their history. Even in our Mormon historical novels by Gerald Lund and Gale Sears, etc., Mormons like notes on every chapter to tell them what's true and what's not. And this author does a lot of blending and manipulating--departing from fact. For example, a bloody amputation of one of the womens' legs would have taken place in Salt lake City, not on the trail.

But if Mormons are willing to stay open-minded to the contributions of fiction, this book will reveal what the art can do for us. It brings motivations and emotions into focus, presents one conflict against another, one character's unrecorded speech against another--all facets that give passion and color to history. And Sandra is a master of the art.

It was a delight in this day of so many of our e-book typographical problems to read such a clean, grammatically correct work, and I am grateful to her and her publishers for tackling this monster of a tale, and for maintaining such a generous posture toward the sacrifice our ancestors made on this journey.
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