Current Issue / DU Alumni

Sandra Dallas looks for the next plot twist

There are plot twists in the books of Denver-based author Sandra Dallas that surprise even her.

“The thing I’m writing now, I have various characters, and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, this couple dies. And they have this daughter,” says Dallas, who earned a BA in journalism from DU in 1960.

Sandra Dallas

Sandra Dallas writes novels set in Colorado and the West. Photo courtesy of Sandra Dallas

“I thought, ‘OK, we have to do something with the daughter’ … then I realized she’s not really their daughter. She has her own story. And she’s become to me the most interesting character. She was this throwaway character that I didn’t even conceive of before I started writing her into it, and now she’s become very important in this book.”

Dallas, 70, is the author of eight historical novels, most of them set in the American West. Her latest book, Prayers for Sale (St. Martin’s Press), which came out in April, was her first to reach the New York Times bestseller list. She celebrated the feat with her friend Arnie Grossman, a fellow author and DU alum (BA ’59).

“I thought it was spectacular but I wasn’t surprised,” Grossman says. “I knew it was one day coming because I have a great deal of faith in her writing skills and she has a growing audience. Each book seems to do a little bit better than the previous one. I’m very proud of what she’s done.”

Set in 1936 in a fictionalized version of Breckenridge, Colo., called Middle Swan, Prayers for Sale takes place in the world of gold-dredging, an early 20th-century industry in which giant barges scooped rocks and gravel from the bottom of mountain streams in an effort to find gold.

The book’s protagonist, 86-year-old Hennie Comfort, is a quilter whose daughter has left the harshness of Middle Swan for a better life in the lowlands. When a young bride and her gold-dredging husband move to Middle Swan, Hennie and the young woman strike up a friendship. Hennie shares stories about her life inspired by the squares on her quilt.

Dallas has many stories of her own to share. She’s lived in Denver most of her life, residing for the past 40 years in a stately home near Eighth Avenue and Downing Street. A year after she graduated from DU she was hired on at the Denver bureau of BusinessWeek, eventually becoming the magazine’s first female bureau chief. While at BusinessWeek she wrote several short books on local history, and when she turned to fiction writing in her late 40s, she continued to use the West as her primary setting.

She says she strives for an authenticity her fellow Western authors don’t always achieve.

“I try to make my characters true to the time,” says Dallas, whose other novels include Tallgrass and New Mercies. “We have what I call the ‘Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman’ syndrome today, where you have 21st-century women in long skirts, and they love Indians and they protect the environment and they stand up to men and they’re doctors and lawyers. They’re great role models, but they’re not very accurate.”

Comments are closed.