Diary of Mattie Spenser (Dallas)

The Diary of Mattie Spenser 
Sandra Dallas, 1997
St. Martin's Press
229 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780312187101

No one is more surprised than Mattie Spenser herself when Luke Spenser, considered the great catch of their small Iowa town, asks her to marry him. Less than a month later, they are off in a covered wagon to build a home on the Colorado frontier. Mattie's only company is a slightly mysterious husband and her private journal, where she records the joys and frustrations not just of frontier life, but also of a new marriage to a handsome but distant stranger.

As she and Luke make life together on the harsh and beautiful plains, Mattie learns some bitter truths about her husband and the girl he lieft behind and finds love where she least expects it. Dramatic and suspenseful, this is an unforgettable story of hardship, friendship and survival. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—June 11, 1939
Education—B.A., University of Denver
Awards—numerous, see below
Currently—lives in Denver, Colorado, USA

Award-winning author Sandra Dallas was dubbed “a quintessential American voice” by Jane Smiley, in Vogue magazine.  Sandra’s novels with their themes of loyalty, friendship, and human dignity have been translated into a dozen foreign languages and have been optioned for films.

A journalism graduate of the University of Denver, Sandra began her writing career as a reporter with Business Week. A staff member for twenty-five years (and the magazine’s first female bureau chief,) she covered the Rocky Mountain region, writing about everything from penny-stock scandals to hard-rock mining, western energy development to contemporary polygamy. Many of her experiences have been incorporated into her novels.

While a reporter, she began writing the first of ten nonfiction books. They include Sacred Paint, which won the National Cowboy Hall of Fame Western Heritage Wrangler Award, and The Quilt That Walked to Golden, recipient of the Independent Publishers Assn. Benjamin Franklin Award.

Turning to fiction in 1990, Sandra has published eight novels. She is the recipient of the Women Writing the West Willa Award for New Mercies, and two-time winner of the Western Writers of America Spur Award, for The Chili Queen and Tallgrass. In addition, she was a finalist for the Colorado Book Award, the Mountain and Plains Booksellers Assn. Award, and a four-time finalist for the Women Writing the West Willa Award.

The mother of two daughters—Dana is an attorney in New Orleans and Povy is a photographer in Golden, Colorado— Sandra lives in Denver with her husband, Bob. (From the author's website.)

Her Own Words
• Because of my interest in the West—I wrote nine nonfiction books about the West before I turned to fiction—I’m a sucker for women’s journals of the westward movement. I wanted The Diary of Mattie Spenser to have the elements of a novel but to read as much like a 19th century journal as possible. Mattie is a woman of her time, not a current-day heroine dressed in a long skirt, and the language is faithful to the Civil War era.

• I added dialogue to keep the diary entries from being too stilted for contemporary readers. Making the diary believable has had an unforeseen consequence: Many readers believe it is an actual journal. They’ve asked where the diary is kept and what happened to the characters after the journal ended. One reader accused me of rewriting some of Mattie’s entries because she recognized my style. Another sent me a copy of an early Denver photograph, asking if the man in the picture was one of the characters in the book. (Author bio from the author's website.)

Book Reviews
A wonderfully vivit portrait of frontier life...Mattie is a marvelous creation...It's a story that's genuinely moving and impossible to put down.
Rocky Mountain News

One of the bright new voices in historical fiction…Dallas’s authentic period details, her colorful characters, and most of all Mattie herself lend charm and emotional truth to this appealing marital and pioneering adventure.
Publishers Weekly

With the convention of finding a diary in an elderly neighbor's attic trunk framing her story, Dallas creates a ripping good read from this fictional journal.... If some of the hooks in the tale, which include wife beating, incest, miscegenation, and adultery, are a bit contrived, the pace is lively and engaging. —GraceAnne DeCandido

The buoyancy and simple, uncloying sweetness of spirit of Dallas's appealing protagonist—the young wife of a homesteader in Colorado Territory—give a bright, fresh shading to the tragedies and small sharp joys of 19th-century frontier life. Again, as in The Persian Pickle Club (1995), Dallas has caught the lilt and drift of regional speech. At 22, plain Mattie is astounded that handsome Luke Spenser desires to marry her—he has been keeping company with pretty Persia. Nonetheless, he chooses her, and they head out from Iowa in May 1865 to the homestead Luke has already planted in Colorado Territory. There are pleasures along the way: nice folks, and quiet days spent with Luke, her "Darling Boy." But Luke, who doesn't smile at her jokes, works very hard and doesn't like her to flirt with him. As for the marital act: "I still think it's overrated." Danger comes soon enough, and it's Mattie's quick shooting that saves two lives, although she doesn't seriously contradict Luke's dismissive observation that it was a "lucky shot." Once they arrive in Colorado, though, Mattie is disappointed by the homestead (out on the plains, she finds, there is "too much sky"). Her education in the real travails of people, particularly women, separated from the cushioning platitudes and quick-step judgments of home, begins immediately. A despised "slattern" proves herself a true friend; Mattie witnesses women weakened by too many births, another abused and horribly killed, and murder and torture by both whites and Indians. She also experiences wild joy and then tragedy, suffers many dangers, and is rocked by Luke's sudden betrayal. ("How could he ever again be my Darling Boy?") Yet torment yields to endurance and a kind of compassion. Tragedies and sad little domestic dramas are muffled within the decency and humanity of a character whose understanding—but not essence—changes with events. A modest, appealing novel with a convincing reach into Colorado's plains and skies.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for The Diary of Mattie Spenser:

1. We learn that Luke seemed attracted to lovely Persia at first. But he chose Mattie instead. Were you initially suspicious? Why didn't Mattie question his motivations? Why was Luke considered such a catch?

2. At the heart of this pioneer story of hardship and adventure is the marriage of Mattie and Luke. Talk about that relationship and the difficulties of a husband who remains distant, sometimes dismissive. Do you like Luke...or admire him...or what?

3. Luke says to Mattie that if "one had to write down such happenings, they weren't worth remembering, and that diary keeping, like writing poetry, used up time that might be put to better use." How would you have answered Luke had you been Mattie?

4. Reading of the dangers and travails Mattie and Luke (and others) faced, which would have been the hardest for you to cope with—Indians, loneliness, childbirth, illnesses, brute hard work?

5. What are some of the codes of "civilized society" that Mattie realizes don't apply to life on the frontier? Do those broken rules suggest that the rules were were meaningless to begin with? Or do different places/times require different standards?

6. The Diary of Mattie Spenser can be seen as a coming-of-age story in which a young, naive girl full of illusions develops into a mature woman. How does Mattie grow into her adult self—in what ways does she change and mature?

7. Is the novel's end satisfying? Or Would you have preferred a different conclusion? Given all that happens, could the story have ended any other way?

8. Dallas says that although this is a fictional journal, some readers have asked her where the journal is kept—in other words, they believe it is real. Did you have that sense, too, as you were reading The Diary—that you were reading the voice of a "real" 19th-century pioneer woman? Does Dallas's voice as a late 20th-century author, writing of 19th-century characters, ring true?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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