Whiter Than Snow: A Novel

Whiter Than Snow: A Novel

by Sandra Dallas


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From the New York Times bestselling author of Prayers for Sale comes a powerful novel about the intersection of redemption, forgiveness, and love. . . .

On a spring afternoon in 1920, Swandyke—a small town near Colorado's Tenmile Range—is changed forever. Just moments after four o'clock, a large split of snow separates from Jubilee Mountain high above the tiny hamlet and hurtles down the rocky slope, enveloping everything in its path.

Meet the residents whose lives this tragedy touches: Lucy and Dolly Patch, two sisters long estranged by a shocking betrayal. Joe Cobb, Swandyke's only black resident, whose love for his daughter forces him to flee Alabama. Then there's Grace Foote, who hides secrets and scandal that belie her genteel façade. And Minder Evans, a Civil War veteran who considers cowardice his greatest sin. Finally, there's Essie Snowball, born Esther Schnable to conservative Jewish parents, who now works as a prostitute and hides her child's parentage from the world.

Fate, chance, and perhaps divine providence all collide in the everyday lives of these people. And ultimately, no one is without sin, no one's soul is whiter than snow, and no one is without the need for forgiveness.

A quintessential American voice and a writer of exquisite historical detail, Sandra Dallas illuminates the resilience of the human spirit in her newest novel.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312663162
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 03/01/2011
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 193,506
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.08(h) x 0.84(d)

About the Author

Award-winning author Sandra Dallas was dubbed "a quintessential American voice" by Jane Smiley, in Vogue Magazine. She is the author of The Bride's House, Prayers for Sale and Tallgrass, among others. Her novels have been translated into a dozen languages and optioned for films. She is the recipient of the Women Writing the West Willa Award and the two-time winner of the Western Writers of America Spur Award. For 25 years, Dallas worked as a reporter covering the Rocky Mountain region for Business Week, and started writing fiction in 1990. She lives with her husband in Denver, Colorado.

Read an Excerpt


No one knew what triggered the Swandyke avalanche that began at exactly 4:10 p.m. on April 20, 1920. It might have been the dynamite charge that was set off at the end of shift on the upper level of the Fourth of July Mine. The miners claimed the blast was too far inside the mountain to be felt on the surface, and besides, they had set off dynamite hundreds, maybe thousands, of times before, and nothing bad had happened. Except for that one time when a charge failed to go off and Howard Dolan hit it with his pick when he was mucking out the stope and blew himself and his partner to kingdom come.

Still, who knew how the old mountain took retribution for having its insides clawed out.

Certainly there was nothing to suggest that the day was different from any other. It started chill and clear. The men, their coat collars turned up against the dawn cold, left for their shifts at the Fourth of July or on the dredge up the Swan River, dinner pails clutched in their mittened hands. A little later, the children went off to school, the older brothers and sisters pulling little ones on sleds. Groups of boys threw snowballs at one another. One grabbed onto the back of a wagon and slid along over the icy road behind it. The Connor girl slipped on the ice and fell over a stone embankment, hitting her head. It hurt so much that she turned around and went home crying. The others called her a crybaby, but after what happened later that day, her parents said the blessed God had taken her hand.

After the children were gone, the women washed the breakfast dishes and started the beans for dinner. Then because the sun came out bright enough to burn your skin in the thin air, came out after one of the worst blizzards they had ever encountered, they got out the washtubs and scrubbed the overalls and shirts, the boys’ knickers and the girls’ dresses. When the wash was rinsed and wrung, they climbed onto the platforms that held the clotheslines far above the snow and hung up the clothes, where they would dry stiff as boards in the wind. Then because it was such a fine day, as fine a day as ever was, they called to one another to come and visit. There was a bit of coffee to reheat, and won’t you have a cup? Cookies, left over from the lunch pails, were set on plates on the oilcloth of the kitchen tables, and the women sat, feeling lazy and gossipy.

“You know, the Richards girl had her baby last week,” announced a woman in one of the kitchens, taking down the good china cups for coffee.

“Was her husband the father?” asked her neighbor.

“I didn’t have the nerve to ask.”

In another house, a woman confided, “The doctor says Albert has the cancer, but he won’t have his lungs cut on.”

“Then he’ll die,” her friend replied, muttering to herself, “at last.”

It was that kind of a day, one for confidences or lazy talk. The women blessed the bright sun after so many winter days of gloom. Nobody thought about an avalanche. What could cause trouble on a day the Lord had given them?

Maybe the cause was an animal—a deer or an elk or even a mountain sheep—making its way along the ridge of Jubilee Mountain. The weight of the beast would have been enough to loosen the snow. That happened often enough. Nobody saw an animal, but then, who was looking?

Or worthless Dave Buck might have set off the avalanche. He’d put on snowshoes and taken his gun and gone high up to hunt for a deer—a fawn, really, for Dave was too lazy to cut up the bigger carcass and haul it home. The company forbade hunting around the mine, but Dave didn’t care. He snowshoed up near timberline, where he’d seen the footprints of deer. He didn’t find any, and he stopped to drink from a pint he’d put into his pocket. One drink, and another, and he sat down beside a stunted pine and picked off the cones and slid them down the white slope. Then he tossed the bottle into that cornice of snow that dipped out over a ridge.

But perhaps it was nothing more than the spring melt. That storm a few days before had dumped five feet of snowfall on top of a dry, heavy base of winter-worn snow. The wind had driven the snow off ridges, leaving them barren, and piled it into large cornices high up. But now the day was cloudless, the sun shining down as harsh as if it had been midsummer. It was so bright that it hurt your eyes to see the glare on the white, and some of the miners rubbed charcoal under their eyes to cut the sharpness.

But who cared what the cause was? Something started the slide that roared down Jubilee Mountain in Swandyke, Colorado, and that was all that mattered.

There was a sharp crack like the sound of distant thunder, and then the cornice of snow where Dave Buck had thrown his bottle, a crusted strip two hundred feet long that flared out over the mountain ridge, fractured and fell. It landed on layers of snow that covered the mountain slope to a depth of more than six feet—a heavy, wet, melting mass of new snow on top, falling on frozen layers of snowpack that lay on a bed of crumbled ice. That bottommost layer, a mass of loose ice crystals formed by freezing and thawing, lubricated the acres of snow lying on top of it just as much as if the bed had been made of marbles, and sent the snow careening down the mountain.

The miners 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. Nothing stood in the way of the terrifying slide, because the mountainside was bare of trees. They had been torn out forty years earlier in the second wave of mining that came after the prospectors abandoned gold pans and sluice boxes. Men had trained giant hoses on the mountain, washing dirt down the slope to be processed for precious minerals. Hydraulic mining, as it was called, also rid the mountainside of rocks and trees and underbrush that would have interfered with an avalanche—not that anything could have held back the tons of white that slid down Jubilee Mountain that afternoon. The slide would have taken anything in its path.

This was not the first slide on Jubilee Mountain. The hillside, in fact, was known for avalanches. But it was the worst, and it spilled over into the forest at the edge of the open slope, tearing out small trees by their roots and hurling them into the rushing snow, which turned them into battering rams. A cabin that perched under the pines was wrenched from its foundation, its log walls torn asunder and broken into jackstraws.

The slide rushed onward, churning up chunks of ice the size of boxcars, gathering up abandoned hoses and machinery and the other detritus of mining that lay in its path. It hurtled on, thrashing its deadly cargo about, not slowing when it reached the bottom of the mountain, but instead rushing across the road, filling the gully with snow as heavy as wet cement and flattening the willows. The avalanche hurtled on until it started up Turnbull Mountain. Then, at last, its momentum came to an end and the slide was exhausted, the front stopping first, the back end slipping down the mountain and filling the gulch with snow higher than a two-story house.

Snow hovered in the air like a deadly mist. The debris caught up in the avalanche rolled a little and was still. A jack pine, graceful as a sled, glided to a stop in the snow covering the road. Clumps of snow fell from the trees still standing at the edge of the deadly white mass, making plopping sounds as they landed. Snowballs broke loose and rolled down the hill, leaving little trails in their wake.

For an instant, all was quiet, as silent as if the slide had occurred in a primeval forest. Then a high-pitched scream came from somewhere in the mass of snow, a child’s scream. The slide thundered down Jubilee Mountain just after the grade school let out, and it grabbed up nine of thirty-two schoolchildren in its icy grip. Five of the victims were related, the children of the Patch sisters—Dolly’s three, who were Jack, Carrie, and Lucia, along with Lucy’s two, Rosemary and Charlie. The slide was no respecter of class, because it took Schuyler Foote, son of the manager of the Fourth of July Mine, and little Jane Cobb, the Negro girl, whose father labored in the mill, and Sophie Schnable, the daughter of a prostitute. And then there was Emmett Carter, that near-orphan boy who lived with his grandfather. All of them were swept up and carried along in that immense swirl of white.

Four of the children survived.

WHITER THAN SNOW Copyright © 2010 by Sandra Dallas.

Reading Group Guide


The ideas for most of my books come with a sort of flash of "inspiration," if I can call it that, what James Michener termed "the magical moment." But in the case of Whiter Than Snow, I can't tell you when the idea hit me. I'm not sure what triggered the book. All I know is I was at a Western Writers of America convention in Scottsdale, Ariz., in June, 2008, and heard a well-known writer remark that a plot was a group of unrelated people coming together to face a common danger. Why that comment, on a day where the temperature was over 100 degrees, led to a book about an avalanche high in the Colorado Rockies is unclear. All I know is that later on, I became aware that I was going to write a book about a snowslide.

Writing Whiter Than Snow was a joy to write, because it incorporates so many things that interest me personally. Each of the chapters involves subjects I wanted to explore:

The chapter on Lucy and Dolly, for instance, is about connections between women, in this case sisters. I suppose I wanted to elaborate on that because my sister Mary and I are so close. And it is about the love-hate relationships people have with where they live. Place has always been a character in my books. In Whiter Than Snow, it is the harsh Colorado mountains where I once lived.

In the past few years, I've read a great deal about the post-Civil War treatment of African Americans, and was stunned to learn that in some cases, treatment of blacks was worse after emancipation. Slaves had an economic value, so while their treatment of slaves was often brutal, their owners had an economic reason to keep them alive. That disappeared with emancipation, so freedom, as Joe and his family knew, was as fraught with danger as slavery had been.

I've never had much sympathy for the problems of the rich, but in Grace's case, her problem was not just being rich and losing her fortune, it was about the lack of options for all women in the early part of the 20th century. As a feminist, I'm well aware of the dearth of opportunities for women, both historically and in my lifetime. When I married in 1963, my credit cards were cancelled and applications sent to my husband. A bank refused to consider my income when my husband and I applied for a home loan. ("You might get pregnant.") I was turned down for jobs because "that's a man's position." I've encountered sexual harassment and job and pay discrimination. So I can relate to Grace's plight.

Incidentally, I set this chapter in Saginaw, Michigan, because it was written just after I gave a speech in Saginaw. I loved the town with its wonderful Victorian mansions.

Years ago, when my husband was in charge of publicity for the Breckenridge Ski Area, he invited the Back Porch Majority, a singing group that was a sort of farm team for the New Christy Minstrels, to ski there. One of the group's songs was about the Sultana, and there's where I first heard about the Mississippi steamboat whose sinking was the greatest maritime disaster in U.S. history. More people were killed in the Sultana tragedy than in the sinking of the Titanic.

My daughter Dana and I visited the Tenement Museum in New York several years ago, and I was intrigued with conditions on the Lower East Side and the structured lives of immigrant women. That led to the chapter on Essie Snowball.

Because I was personally interested in so many of the subjects I wrote about in Whiter Than Snow, the research was fun. Mostly, I read everything I can find on whatever I'm writing about, but in this case, some of the research came from an unexpected source, my grandson, Forrest Athearn, then age six. He heard I was working on a book about a snowslide, so he wrote me a note entitled "About Avalanches:" "Avalanches start from ckoneses. The wend has to blow it hard and then it forms into a pelo and then it fols down a speshl way. Avalanches omle are on step mowtines. You can die esale. They go fast."

That's about all I needed to know, and it's little wonder, then, that the book is dedicated to Forrest.

1. Why does Lucy hate Swandyke, while her sister Dolly loves it? What do the mountains represent to each girl? Why did Lucy miss Dolly more than Ted during the women's estrangement?

2. Emancipation did not end prejudice against African Americans, and in many cases, their treatment was worse after freedom. Compare the lives of men during slavery with Joe's life as a post-Civil War black man. How was it better and worse? When did the attitude toward blacks change, and what brought about that change?

3. Why was Grace so anxious to find a husband after she discovered her family's fortune was gone? Did she have options other than marriage? Compare her life with Jim with what it would have been if she'd married George.

4. Should Minder have tried to save Billy Boy, even though both men would have drowned?

Why didn't Minder identify himself to Kate when he encountered her in Fort Madison? Should he have done so?

5. What made Esther more ambitious than her sister? What alternative did she have to becoming a prostitute? Does she have a future in Swandyke? Will the townspeople ever forget she was a hooker?

6. Which character in the book did you relate to most, and why?

7. You knew from the outset that only four of the nine children caught in the avalanche would live. Which ones would you have saved?

8. If an avalanche took place in a small mountain town today, how would the residents' reactions differ from those of the townspeople in Swandyke in 1920? How would they be the same?

9. Why does tragedy bring people together? How did it change the characters in Whiter Than

Snow? And how does it change people in general?

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