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Interview: April 27, 2012

In Sandra Dallas’ new novel, TRUE SISTERS, four women are brought together on a harrowing journey of Mormon settlers from Iowa City to Salt Lake City, the Promised Land, in 1856. In this interview, conducted by’s Terry Miller Shannon, Dallas talks about her extensive research process and shares some historical quirks that she had to learn from experts. She also reveals the most emotional aspects of writing the novel and previews her forthcoming release, THE QUILT WALK, her first children’s book. Brigham Young's plan to have Mormon settlers push handcarts over the 1,300 miles from Iowa City to Utah seemed to have been mostly successful, but the fourth group had problems, and then the fifth one, the Martin Company trek that the characters in TRUE SISTERS participated in, was a terrible disaster. How did you hear about this little-known event in history? Why did you decide to write the story as fiction instead of nonfiction?

Sandra Dallas: I attended high school in Salt Lake City and was intrigued with the heroic-size bronze of a handcart family in the temple grounds of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I wanted to know the story of these people. I’ve always read Mormon history, especially the journals of the women, and have read a number of accounts of the handcart emigrants (Wallace Stegner’s THE GATHERING OF ZION, for instance) but not until I read DEVIL’S GATE, a critical nonfiction account of the handcart expedition, did I realize what a great novel the handcart story would make. Although I’ve written 10 nonfiction books, I’m a novelist now, so I never considered writing this as nonfiction.

BRC: In your acknowledgments, you talk about your research, including the LDS Church History Library and Archives, which now is more open to outside researchers than in the past. The research you conducted for this book had to have been extensive. How long was the process? Did it involve trips to actual places along the trail the handcart pioneers walked?

SD: The LDS Church library not only makes journals and narratives of the handcart emigrants available but makes them available online. That’s a big change from the past. Many Mormons kept journals, so there are a number of accounts available of the first half of the trip.  I’m not aware of any diaries that chronicle the last days of the trek, however. I did go to Salt Lake City to do research.  I visited the Mormon encampment near Iowa City and Fort Laramie, but the most emotional place I visited was Devil’s Gate in Wyoming, where the emigrants were snowbound for several days and where so many died. There was a sense that this was a sacred place. We spoke in whispers, and I could feel a presence.

BRC: It seems that the women in this story were the ones who were most able to persevere against almost unimaginable hardship. Was this true of the women who were in the real Martin Handcart Company?

SD: More women, proportionately, survived than men.

BRC: Thales Tanner is a complicated character (thanks to your writing, I found him to be quite realistic, and especially appreciated his story arc). Is he based on a real person?

SD: An historian who read the manuscript named the man she thought Thales Tanner was based on. But in fact, he is fictional, as are all of my characters. I incorporate real anecdotes and quotes, however. 

BRC: At least some of the difficulties of the Martin Company may have been due to their late start. It seems they began their journey three weeks past the original date. Why didn't the group get started on their scheduled departure date?

SD: The handcarts weren’t ready. The emigrants had expected to find carts waiting for them in Iowa City. But when they arrived, they discovered they had to make the carts themselves, and out of green lumber, because no seasoned wood was available. As the wood dried, the carts fell apart. Even if the company had left on time, it probably would have run into snow. July was very late to leave on a 1,300-mile trek west.

BRC: The theme of long-ago women forging relationships with other women in order to overcome hardship and tragedy seems to be an enduring (and winning) theme in your stories. How do you think this theme evolved in your writing career?

SD: That’s a hard question to answer. Book ideas come to me in a kind of flash, what James Michener called “the magical moment.” I don’t sit down and say, let’s see, I write about women, so what should I tackle next? I wait until an idea hits me, and sometimes, it’s a long wait. I love the history of western women, and I’ve written a number of nonfiction books about the West, so I’m sure that has something to do with my choice of story line.

BRC: Each of the main characters is so finely drawn. Do you write up character profiles before you begin writing? In order to weave these several lives together into a perfect tapestry, did you outline before you began writing TRUE SISTERS?

SD: I don’t do either. I get to know my characters as I write, which means I often have to go back and change early misconceptions about them. When I start a novel, I know only the ending, not how I’m going to get there. And when I reach the end, I frequently change it.

BRC: In your acknowledgements, you tell us that around 625 settlers started the trek from Iowa City with Captain Edward Martin. After defections, 575 continued. The number of deaths was between 135 and 170 (or even more), and it seemed that many of those were children and babies. Are there any records stating what percentage of the deaths were youngsters?

SD: There probably are, but I’ve never seen them. 

BRC: You note that, in contrast to the large number of deaths during the Martin Company journey, only 42 in the Donner Party died --- and yet the Donner Party tragedy is famous, while the Martin Company disaster is largely unknown. What do you think is the reason for this?

SD: I’ve wondered that.  Maybe it’s because of the gruesome way the Donner survivors lived --- turning to cannibalism. There was not even a hint of that among the handcart emigrants.

BRC: Reading TRUE SISTERS was an emotional experience for me. I found the characters to be so relatable that I felt almost as if I were enduring their suffering, too. Was it emotionally draining for you to write these women's stories? Was there any particular portion of the book that was most difficult to write for this reason?

SD: Thank you. The hardest part was writing about the husbands of the two old women who died. I loved those couples and felt the women’s loss. And I was moved by the little boy who drowned. I wanted to resurrect him, but that wouldn’t fit the story line. I don’t like to be cold and found myself almost shivering when I wrote about the women, their clothes soaked, walking through the blizzards, never able to get warm.

BRC: Was it difficult to balance the story of the actual trek, which is the physical element of the tale, with the rich internal lives of the four main characters?

SD: My characters are all-important. I wrote about women, and set them against a harsh background. I did not write about the handcart expedition and paste the characters onto the setting.

BRC: I thought your handling of the polygamy issue was thought-provoking. There were scenarios showing why some women might have been tempted by a polygamous marriage and also some very diverse polygamous marriage outcomes. I noticed in your bio on your website that you had written about contemporary polygamy. Did your experience researching those stories influence the polygamy threads in TRUE SISTERS?

SD: I should mention that contemporary polygamy is a whole different state from what the early Mormons practiced. The LDS Church outlawed plural marriage in 1890, and any Mormon today who enters polygamy is excommunicated. The polygamous cults in Utah and elsewhere are offshoots of the Mormon Church. Still, polygamy under any circumstances is difficult. I’m sure some of the remarks made in my interviews with women who escaped from polygamy in recent years went into the book --- certainly my sympathy for them did.

BRC: In the final chapter, you discuss each character's later lives (I loved that you did this). Without giving away any plot spoilers, were these individual story arcs fairly typical of the lives of the original handcart pioneers?

SD: The handcart pioneers reached Utah at a difficult time. It was during what’s called the Mormon Reformation, when there was a good deal of zealotry. Utah was far from the Promised Land. There was little money and few jobs. Farming was difficult in that barren land. Many of the handcart pioneers lived hardscrabble lives. Others, of course, prospered, and there were some wealthy Mormons. I think my characters’ lives were typical of the time.

BRC: In the acknowledgements, you mention that experts caught errors that would have affected the book's credibility. Can you share any of these?

SD: I had my characters wearing mittens. Turns out most were so poor, they didn’t have mittens. And I had them dig a grave with a shovel. The Martin Company had no shovels, only a couple of spades.

BRC: Many readers outside Utah or those without any connection to the LDS church may be unfamiliar with these handcart expeditions. What do you hope readers take away from TRUE SISTERS?

SD: The strength of women settling the West.  I want them to remember the joy of the early Mormon Church, which is America’s largest home-grown religion, by the way, and the extraordinary sacrifice and hard work that went into building up the Mormon Zion. I’m not a Mormon, by the way. I’m a Presbyterian. But I have tremendous admiration for the church and its history.

BRC: Your fans would love to know what you're working on next. Can you give us a hint of what we can anticipate?

SD: The next book is THE QUILT WALK, my first children’s book. It’s based on a story in my 2004 history of Colorado quilting, THE QUILT THAT WALKED TO GOLDENIn 1864, two brothers filled their wagons with building materials and told their wives there was no room for their clothes; they would have to wear whatever they wanted to bring. So the wives and a small daughter put on every garment they owned and walked beside the wagons all the way to Golden, Colorado. Later the clothes were cut up and turned into a quilt that was known in the family as “the quilt that walked to Golden.” THE QUILT WALK is a story of the adventures of the little girl in that family. It will be published in September.