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. – from Whiter Than Snow, page 4 –
On a perfect April day in 1920, a cornice of snow breaks free and becomes a fatal avalanche which kills four children walking home from school in a tiny Colorado mining community. Sandra Dallas opens her latest novel with this event, and then backtracks to explore the lives of the families involved in the tragedy. What follows is a series of linked short stories of each of the main characters. Dallas brings the stories full circle when, at the end of the book, she returns to the mining town in the aftermath of the avalanche and brings closure to her characters’ personal journeys. In an interview about the book, Dallas says:
Each of the chapters involves subjects I wanted to explore.
These include a difficult relationship between sisters which is complicated by jealousy and misunderstanding; the post-Civil war treatment of African Americans; women’s rights and class differences – including a woman who finds her future at risk when her father loses his money, and an immigrant woman who turns to prostitution to support her young daughter; and finally post-traumatic stress, in this case surrounding a man who served in the Union army and feels guilty for the death of one of his friends. Each of the multi-layered stories could almost stand on their own – which gave an unusual depth to the completed novel.
Dallas explores the aftermath of tragedy, specifically the randomness of loss and the importance of community in navigating that loss. She captures the closeness of a mining community which often has to face tragedy and finds themselves isolated by the geography of the mountains and long winters.
It was the way things were done there. The grief of one was the grief of all. – from Whiter Than Snow, page 254 –
Sandra Dallas is considered an historical fiction writer – and Whiter Than Snow is indeed a slice of history inserted into fiction; but, I think Dallas writes beyond her genre in this novel by looking at the psychological make-up of her characters within the context of history. Readers might be interested to know that Swandyke is an actual town – although it is now a ghost town – but Dallas imagines the avalanche and its impact on the people.
I found Whiter Than Snow to be a quick, provocative read which will appeal to readers who enjoy historical fiction and character driven stories.
*FTC Disclosure: This book was sent to me by the publisher for review on my blog.