Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Whiter Than Snow

In Whiter Than Snow, Sandra Dallas offers another look at life in Colorado’s gold mining towns during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a time when the hardiest, most adventurous (or, perhaps, most desperate) souls were willing to risk their lives for a steady job in a company town. Swandyke, near Tenmile Range, is filled with people who have come to the cold little town for a variety of reasons. Some are in hiding from creditors or the law; some just kept moving westward, failing in one move after the other, until they ended up in Colorado; and its lone black resident is here because he struck a white man and had to run for his life in the middle of the night.

Swandyke is a town in which the privacy of others is respected. Those who want to keep to themselves can do so for years. The men, many of whom are of the hard-drinking variety, work the mine; the women stay home and raise their children, teach in the town schoolhouse, or work in the local brothel. Life in Swandyke, especially in the wintertime, is tough but, by the spring of 1920, life there has become routine for most of its residents.

That will change, though, at 4:10 p.m. on April 20, 1920 when an avalanche gobbles up nine Swandyke school children as they make their way home form their little schoolhouse. Five of the avalanche victims are the children of two estranged sisters, one is the son of the mine manager, one is the only black child in the town, one is the daughter of a prostitute, and the other is being raised by his Civil War veteran grandfather.

The author remarks in the book’s very first chapter that only four of the nine children will survive. The rest of Whiter Than Snow deals with who the nine children are and how their families came to be in Swandyke, Colorado, working for the big Fourth of July mine. Dallas tells their story in a series of flashbacks and backstories involving each of the six families that have had children snatched away by the avalanche. The reader learns of the strengths, weaknesses, hopes and dreams of each parent, a group of people with very little in common other than their work at the mine and their love for their children. Suddenly, though these people have hardly interacted before, they come together in a wave of mutual support that will help the most unfortunate of them survive the five terrible losses just ahead.

As the book’s main characters are being developed, the novel is steadily building to a dramatic climax during which the reader will finally learn which children survive and which do not. The townspeople know they have less than twenty minutes to dig survivors from beneath the snow - and, one-by-one, they will bring children to the surface in their race against the clock. For five children, it is too late. If you begin this book, you will not quit reading until you find out which five.

Rated at: 4.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

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