When 86-year-old Hennie Comfort pauses in reading a letter from her daughter urging Hennie to come live with her in Iowa, and gazes out the window of her solid log house, she sees a young woman covered in snow and staring at Hennie's "Prayers for Sale" sign. Hennie greets the stranger, who offers to pay for a prayer. Of course, Hennie offers the prayer --- a heart-tugging appeal related to a baby --- for free.
This incident marks the beginning of an evolving friendship between Hennie and Nit Spindle. Nit is a 17-year-old newlywed who has moved with her husband Dick to the mining town of Middle Swan, Colorado. It's 1936, and Dick is relieved to have any job, even if it's the terribly hard and dangerous work on the gold mining dredge. His job is difficult enough, but he works with a known troublemaker who hates the newcomer and is determined to cause him grief. Hennie worries that tragedy is inevitable for the young couple.
Hennie remembers how lonely she felt when she moved to Middle Swan 70 years before. She hopes to help Nit feel at home more quickly, even as she girds herself for her inevitable leave-taking to join her daughter's household. She hates leaving her home in Middle Swan, but realizes reluctantly that it’s probably time to be with family.
On Hennie's first visit to Nit's humble cabin, the young girl confides her sorrow over the death of her newborn, whose grave she left far behind in Kentucky. Hennie understands Nit's feelings all too well, even as she comforts her new friend. In fact, Hennie does something she never does because remembering is too painful: she tells Nit about her own child's death when she was a young mother.
As Hennie and Nit's friendship develops, the two partake in berry-picking, picnics and hikes in the Colorado mountains. They also exhibit a mutual passionate love for patchwork by stitching together as they tell their stories. Hennie has a lifetime of them. She tells tales of life in the mining town, including colorful characters such as prostitutes and miners who strike it rich. But most of all, she shares the chapters of her own life, a kind of patchwork quilt comprised of episodes that are sometimes horrifying and other times wonderful. Some of these stories are romantic, many are hilarious or heartbreaking --- but every one of them is utterly engrossing.
In Hennie's personal stories, one tale in particular is especially significant. It is woven subtly within the novel to the very end, resulting ultimately in a glorious tapestry of redemption that only a masterful storyteller could pull off (actually, two masterful storytellers --- Hennie Comfort and Sandra Dallas).
While readers experience Hennie's life in 1936 as she makes a new friend and prepares to leave her old life, we also are privy to her past. And yet, Hennie's future also beckons, along with a mysterious and important piece of unfinished business that pulls us headlong through the book until the unpredictable and wholly satisfying conclusion. PRAYERS FOR SALE is the finest example of an excellent read, with its understated delivery and life-affirming theme.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on January 19, 2011
Prayers for Sale