Of faith and frostbite: a review of True Sisters

 

True Sisters
Sandra Dallas
341 pages, hardcover: $24.99.
St. Martin’s Press, 2012.

In the 2012 presidential election, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints emerged from the shadows with the first Mormon candidate for the nation's highest office. Colorado writer Sandra Dallas's 11th novel examines the history of a religion not widely understood outside its Utah base, where 62 percent of residents identify as Mormon. True Sisters illuminates the disastrous 1856 Martin Handcart Company journey from Iowa City to Salt Lake, introducing us to a fascinating group of mostly Scottish emigrants.

The pioneers have to make their way first across the ocean, then over the prairies and mountains, starting dangerously late in summer. We already know how perilous the journey will be, the insanity of the leadership's decision to send 625 people out on foot in August, pushing poorly constructed handcarts across dirt, sand, mud and snow, with the hope of arriving in the Great Salt Lake before winter. Ill-prepared, underfed and poorly supplied, one in four will die before they reach the so-called New Zion.

Dallas homes in on a handful of women, some pregnant and accompanied by husbands, others by brothers and parents, who begin the trek determined to create their lives anew. Recent converts, they're eager to flee the stultifying Christianity of their native Great Britain for a new faith in a new land -- a 19th century version of the Pilgrims' voyage to New England. The charismatic Thales Tanner, Louisa's new husband, a missionary who knew Joseph Smith and can personally testify to the wonders of Zion, inspires many to make the arduous journey. They include several members of Louisa's family, not all of whom survive.

Dallas avoids political pronouncements about the LDS church. Instead, she re-opens an often-overlooked chapter of westward expansion and helps us see it through the eyes of those who lived it: "Jessie joyed to see the vast land, so wide and open, so different from the landscape of the farm, with its copses and hedgerows. 'I never saw a country I liked better in my life. The earth is as young as a baby, while at home it was as aged as an old man.' "

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