Eighty-six-year-old Hennie Comfort has lived in the rugged mining town of Middle Swan since before President Grant declared Colorado the Union’s thirty-eighth state. Hennie’s daughter, Mae, wants her mother to bid farewell to the unforgiving winters of the Colorado mountains and join her and her husband in their Iowa home along the banks of the Mississippi River. Hennie has decided to acquiesce, reminding herself of the practicality of her daughter’s concerns as she both mourns and celebrates a life lived with great exuberance and intention.
But this prolonged goodbye feels like death to Hennie, and it is in this mournful yet deliberate state that she meets seventeen-year-old newlywed Nit Spindle. Nit and her husband, Dick, have just moved to the high country to find work. The year is 1936, the country is in an economic slump, and Nit arrives in Middle Swan with an innocence that Hennie finds endearing. Sandra Dallas’s historical novel Prayers for Sale is the tale of the unlikely friendship between the elderly Hennie and seventeen-year-old Nit; as the women quilt together or pick wild raspberries or endure a spring snowstorm in a drafty cabin, we watch, through the stories Hennie tells Nit, the growth of a town, of the American West, of a difficult and noble way of life.
Middle Swan, a fictional town Dallas says she based largely on Breckenridge, Colorado, is defined by the interminable screeching of the dredge boat’s bucket line—a sound of metal scraping that comes from the huge iron scoops attached to a revolving chain that duck down through river water in front of a large boat, scooping up dirt and rocks that are later strained in search of gold nuggets. When the screeching halts, the women of Middle Swan listen to determine whether it is the short pause of a momentary malfunction or the longer stall that suggests one of their husbands has been injured or, more likely, killed in some brutal and desperate manner. “Dredging was dangerous work,” Hennie tells us.
A man could get caught up in the bucket line and lose a finger or worse. More than one worker had died when he touched the electric. In winter, the decks and gangplank froze and a man might lose his footing—or maybe get pushed—sliding into the icy water. With his heavy boots and coat, he would sink into the dredge pond with barely a cry. Even if someone heard him and rescued him before he drowned, he’d likely come down with pneumonia, which at ten thousand feet was just a slower death.
While an underground gold or silver miner could boast of bravery, skill, and the hope of a big strike, those working on the dredges rarely took pride in their work, Hennie tells us. And in this drudgery, Dallas builds a town with a sometimes unified voice reminiscent of a Sherwood Anderson story.
Consider, for example, the Tenmile Quilters, the decades-old Middle Swan quilting circle that can take ten or twenty years before it considers a newcomer one of its own. When Hennie takes Nit along for the first time, with Nit nervously smoothing her hair and fretting over her quilting patterns, Hennie explains that overdressed Monalisa Pinto may seem uppity as she overcompensates for her days as a hooker, and that plain-looking Edna Gum actually is a wealthy woman whose husband was vice president of the Swan River Dredge Company and who has silver things but “acts like they’re nothing better than the tin the rest of us use.”
“A quilt circle’s like a crazy quilt,” Hennie explains to Nit.
“You got all kinds in it. Some members are the big pieces of velvet or brocade, show-offish, while others are bitty scraps of used goods, hoping you don’t notice them. But without each and every one, the quilt would fall apart. There’s big and small, old and new, fancy and plain in a quilt circle. Some you like better than the others. We have our differences, and Monalisa is a trial, but it’s a surprise how we all come together over the quilt frame, even Monalisa. We’re as thick as a lettuce bed.”
Equally important to the voices resonating in Prayers for Sale is the intentional sense of story Dallas so masterfully fosters. Hennie meets Nit in the novel’s opening pages when young Nit pauses near the old sign on Hennie’s house that reads “Prayers for Sale.” Hennie doesn’t really sell her prayers, but the sign stands throughout the novel as a call for story with various characters stopping to press a nickel on the fence line and beg for Hennie’s intercession. And Hennie herself, not surprisingly, has lived a rich but sometimes painful life, the stories of which emerge piece by piece, story by story, much like a quilt that pieces itself together over the course of a carefully wrought novel.
“Have you got secrets, Mrs. Comfort?” Nit asks after Hennie chastises her, saying that small-town mountain people often hold places where it is best not to pry: “‘I’ve told most of mine or forgotten them,’ Hennie said. She added quickly, ‘I don’t reckon I’ve got any secrets you’d want to hear, at any rate.’ Of course there was one secret she’d kept, a story left untold. Hennie couldn’t tell it until it had an ending, and she hadn’t decided yet what the ending would be.”
It is because of such untold stories, and the confidence with which Hennie insists that she is master of their endings, that we readers are compelled to read on. From the tragic death of Hennie’s young daughter in the novel’s early chapters, to her admirable yet curiously resistant faith in God, to her two passionate yet humanly troubled marriages, to the impending move from Middle Swan that we pray will never truly come to fruition, Hennie Comfort ultimately embodies the art of storytelling, the art of quilting, and the hard-won planting of generational roots in the social and physical fabric of the American West.
Dallas, whose previous novels include Tallgrass, The Persian Pickle Club, The Diary of Mattie Spenser, Buster’s Midnight Café, and New Mercies, writes in Prayers for Sale a tale that is both poetic and historical, rich in memorable characters and rife with surprising twists of tale. Although Dallas’s oeuvre more often falls in line with Oprah Book Club connoisseurs and best-selling speed reads, Prayers for Sale suggests that she may yet find a place among the stalwarts of the literature of the American West.
About the Reviewer
Jennie A. Camp holds a Ph.D. in American literature from the University of Denver and an MFA in fiction writing from Colorado State University. Her work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, North Dakota Quarterly, Western American Literature, and the Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature, among other publications. She lives in Platteville, Colorado, with her husband and five children.