Tragedy strikes Swandyke, a small Colorado mining town, snatching up a group of schoolchildren in its wake. This crisis brings together an unlikely group of people. Lucy Patch, a bright woman who once sacrificed her dreams for her impoverished family, meets her long-estranged sister, Dolly Patch. Joe Cobb, the only black man in town, once fled vicious racism in Alabama with his beloved daughter in his arms. Grace Foote, born to wealth, laments a twist of fate that changed her life. Minder Evans, a veteran of The War Between the States, has spent his life haunted by ghosts of the war and unspeakable guilt. He now lives for his young grandson, his only living family member. Essie Snowball, raised by a traditional Jewish family in a New York tenement, is now a prostitute at the local hook house. All these people are drawn together, at the scene of a tragedy, by their love for their children and their terror of losing them.
This novel opens at the moment of the crisis then steps back to explore the history of each of these characters. It flows more like a series of vignettes than a novel, yet I found each story so compelling I couldn't put the book down. Sandra Dallas is a master storyteller. I was drawn into each time and place she described: a Civil War battlefield and prison camp, a hot, steamy Alabama farm, and a dry, frigid mining town, near the peak of a Colorado mountain, around the turn of the 20th century. Parallel themes of love, disappointment, loss and yearning for a better life run through these characters' stories. They also delve into prejudice, cruelty, and the stifling nature of rigid gender roles, as well as forgiveness and atonement for past sins.
The threads of this novel were somewhat disconnected, coming together at the end in a way that was compelling but not completely satisfying. I was left wanting to know more about these rich, colorful characters and the tenuous bonds they were forming among themselves. Nevertheless, Whiter Than Snow worked for me. The author's storytelling ability and gift for creating vivid settings and characters sucked me in, and I rarely put down the book until I reached the last page.