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FICTION

Book Review of 'Prayers for Sale' by Sandra Dallas

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By Caroline Preston
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 13, 2009

PRAYERS FOR SALE

By Sandra Dallas

This Story

St. Martin's. 305 pp. $24.95

Hennie Comfort is the best storyteller in Middle Swan, a gold-mining town high in the Colorado Rockies, and after 86 years, she's accumulated plenty of tales from losing one husband in the Civil War and another in a mine explosion. One wintry afternoon in 1936, 17-year-old Nit Spindle turns up on Hennie's front porch. A transplant from the South like Hennie and a new bride who has just lost a baby, Nit yearns for a little company and guidance. "The girl Nit needed help if she was to become a mountain woman. Hennie had a lifetime of stories she wanted to tell one more time." So begins Sandra Dallas's sentimental eighth novel, "Prayers for Sale," about the redemptive power of women's friendship.

Over the next four seasons, Hennie shows Nit how to survive in Middle Swan. She takes her on a hike up the mountain to the best raspberry patch, initiates her into the quilting circle and explains the goings-on at the Willows, the local "hookhouse." Every deserted homestead, caved-in mineshaft and forlorn gravestone they pass inspires one of Hennie's stories.

"Prayers for Sale" works best in these anecdotes about busted prospectors, gamblers, moonshiners and lonely wives, who, Dallas explains in her introduction, are based on the early history of Breckenridge, Colo. But the book's most powerful presence is the dredge mine that "squatted in the mountain streams up the gulch." The only thing worse than the day-and-night screeching of the "gold boats" is when they fall silent, which means there's been an accident.

Unfortunately, Hennie and Nit's touching bond is undermined by clunky prose. While sharing stories, Hennie and the other characters often chuckle -- 19 times, to be exact, which makes for a lot of chuckling in a fairly short novel. Nit finds her own voice as a storyteller by the end of the book, but initially she gushes like a first grader with lines like: " 'That's the best story,' Nit said, clapping her hands."

Despite its flaws, though, "Prayers for Sale" is as bighearted as Hennie herself, who hands out stout winter coats to miners' wives, saying they're hand-me-downs when, in fact, they're brand-new, ordered in secret from the Sears catalogue.

Preston's most recent novel is "Gatsby's Girl."


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