On an otherwise clear spring day in Swandyke, Colorado, in April 1920, an avalanche lunges down from Jubilee Mountain, engulfing nine children on their way home from school. The miners in the area “called such a phenomenon a ‘slab avalanche’ because a curtain of snow slid down the slope, picking up speed at a terrible rate, until it reached one hundred miles an hour.” The poor kids didn’t stand a chance. The small town is quick to react. Miners leave their posts, gathering up whatever tools they can find and any available help, and race toward the big snowdrift at the bottom of the mountain. It is soon discovered that four children have been recovered. Now it’s a race against time to find the other five.
Swandyke seems to be your typical mountain valley town, but upon closer inspection, the residents make up a microcosm of America at that time. As they feverishly attempt to rescue the remaining children, we get a glimpse into their lives and what led them to this part of the world.
Grace Foote is the wife of the mine manager and mother to a young son trapped in the snow. It was Grace who first noticed the treacherous cascade of snow hurtling toward the town, and it was she who realized the children were directly in its path. Although it appears that Grace must have the ideal life, it wasn’t always the case. She has suffered her share of heartbreak and pain.
Lucy Patch and her sister, Dolly, have been estranged for years, dating back to when Dolly eloped with Lucy’s intended. Even though they live in the same town, Lucy stays far away from her insensitive sister and her husband. But even family betrayal takes a backseat to tragedy. The two put their tumultuous past behind them for the sake of their lost children.
Joe Cobb, the sole black man in town, is desperate to find his daughter --- his only remaining relative. His life has never been easy, starting with his witnessing the lynching of his teacher when he was just eight years old. Since his wife’s unfortunate death, his daughter, Jane, is his reason for living, and he will dig through the tufts of snow all night if that’s what it takes to find her.
Minder Evans, a 75-year-old veteran of the Civil War, is the lone guardian for his grandson Emmett. Minder has seen a lot of tragedy in his life, and he wrestles with guilt over events in his past. He couldn’t face losing Emmett, too.
Essie Snowball (the former Esther Schnabel of New York) works in the town’s brothel, saving furiously to make a better life for her young daughter, Sophie. She had left home to become a famous dancer. But soon after, her shiftless and morally bankrupt husband started bringing men home, insisting his wife “entertain them.” Essie left without a thing to her name, except sweet Sophie. Working as a prostitute in a small mining town was not Essie’s idea of the perfect life, but it did provide a comfortable living for her and her daughter.
All these colorful and sometimes tragic stories come together as the people of Swandyke join to try and save their own. And in the capable hands of Sandra Dallas, readers are treated to a race-against-the-clock adventure tale as well as an intricate history of the early 20th century in the still slightly untamed west. Fans of Dallas’s earlier novels, like PRAYERS FOR SALE and TALLGRASS, will not be disappointed with this exhilarating tale of rescue and redemption, and will be left to wonder what exciting period in time she will write about next.
Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on April 28, 2011