Prayers for Sale (Dallas)

Prayers for Sale
Sandra Dallas
St. Martin's Press
352 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780312385194

From the critically acclaimed author of Tallgrass comes a powerful novel about an unlikely friendship between two women and the secrets they’ve kept in order to survive life in a rugged Colorado mining town.

It’s 1936 and the Great Depression has taken its toll. Up in the high country of the snow-covered Rocky Mountains, eighty-six-year-old Hennie Comfort has lived in Middle Swan, Colorado, since before it was Colorado. When she first meets seventeen-year-old Nit Spindle, Hennie is drawn to the grieving young girl.

Nit and her husband have come to this small mining town in search of work, but the loneliness and loss Nit feels are almost too much to bear. One day she notices an old sign that reads prayers for sale in front of Hennie’s house. Hennie doesn’t actually take money for her prayers, never has, but she invites the skinny girl in anyway. The harsh conditions of life that each has endured create an instant bond, and a friendship is born, one in which the deepest of hardships are shared and the darkest of secrets are confessed.

Sandra Dallas has created an unforgettable tale of a friendship between two women, one with surprising twists and turns, and one that is ultimately a revelation of the finest parts of the human spirit. (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.

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
Despite its flaws...Prayers for Sale is as bighearted as Hennie herself, who hands out stout winter coats to miners' wives, saying they're hand-me-downs when, in fact, they're brand-new, ordered in secret from the Sears catalogue.
Caroline Preston - Washington Post

In her charming new novel, Dallas (The Persian Pickle Club; Tallgrass; etc.) offers up the unconventional friendship between Hennie Comfort, a natural storyteller entering the twilight of her life, and Nit Spindle, a naïve young newlywed, forged in the isolated mining town of Middle Swan, Colo., in 1936. When the two meet, Hennie recognizes her younger self in Nit, and she's immediately struck with a desire to nurture and guide Nit, who is lonely and adrift in her new hometown and her brand-new marriage. As Hennie regales Nit with stories and advice, the two become inseparable and pass several seasons huddled around their quilting with the other women of Middle Swan. Even though Hennie maintains an air of c'est la vie as she unravels her life story, Nit and the reader soon realize there are tragedies and secrets hidden behind Hennie's tranquil demeanor. This satisfying novel will immediately draw readers into Hennie and Nit's lives, and the unexpected twists will keep them hooked through to the bittersweet denouement.
Publishers Weekly

Dallas (Tallgrass, 2007, etc.) offers another of her signature western heartwarmers, complete with knitting circle, this time set in a Colorado gold-mining town. In 1936, Hennie Comfort, who has lived in Middle Swan for 70 years, befriends newcomer Nit Spindle, whose husband has just been hired on a local dredge boat (the work is brutal and dangerous). Octogenarian Hennie feels an immediate kinship with 17-year-old Nit. Both are from Southern border states, both married as teens and both lost a child-Nit is currently mourning the loss of her stillbirth daughter; Hennie's birth daughter drowned as a toddler. They both quilt and Hennie, a founding member of the Ten-Mile Quilters, invites Nit to join the circle. Since Hennie will be leaving Middle Swan soon to live with her adopted daughter in Iowa, she decides to pass on to Nit all of her stories about the various characters who have inhabited Middle Swan. The 1936 plot—the two women's evolving friendship, Nit's new pregnancy, Hennie's romance with an old friend, even her forgiveness of a man who did her wrong long ago—is not much more than a backdrop for the stories Hennie tells about the past. Hennie's own history comes in pieces: Orphaned and then cheated out of her inheritance as a young girl, she married her beloved Billy at 14. After Billy was forced to go off to fight for the Confederacy against his will, a local bully terrorized Hennie and inadvertently caused her baby's death. After the Civil War ended, leaving Hennie a widow, a newly married friend invited her to Colorado for a very long-distance blind date with the man who became Hennie's beloved if imperfect second husband, Jake. While traveling west, Hennie found an abandoned baby she and Jake raised as their own daughter, Mae. Despite a few surprise coincidences, the book offers little suspense, yet readers will be glad Dallas's likable heroines get their happy endings. Forgiveness and redemption are the themes of this gentle novel about hardscrabble lives.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions 
1. The sign outside Hennie’s house says “Prayers for Sale,” yet she doesn’t sell prayers. Why does Hennie keep the sign?

2. Although they’re decades apart in age, 86-year-old Hennie and 17-year-old Nit become fast friends. What qualities do they have in common? What makes them compatible?

3. As Hennie begins her story for Nit, she says, “Back then, I wasn’t Hennie Comfort. In those days, I was called by the name of Ila Mae Stubbs.” What other transformations has Hennie made in the intervening years? What about her has stayed the same?

4. As in her previous novels, Sandra Dallas did extensive research on the dialects and period details of the era in which Prayers for Sale is set. Did the rich evocation of a gold-mining town and the quilting lore, for instance, contribute to your interest in Hennie and Nit’s relationship?

5. Hennie’s voice drives the novel, and is filled with phrases and expressions uncommon today. What does Dallas’s commitment to verbal authenticity add to her portrait of Hennie? What expressions did you find especially memorable?

6. Quilting plays a central role in fostering Nit and Hennie’s friendship. Towards the end of the book, Nit says, “Quilts are like lives. They’re made up of a lot of little pieces.” Do you think this is true? Does the structure of the book reflect this perspective?

7. Were you surprised by the book’s final scene? What would you have done, if you were in Hennie’s shoes? Would Hennie’s life have been different if she had done so earlier?

8. Have you read other novels by Sandra Dallas? Which characters do you recognize from her previous books?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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