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Book reviews: Historical fiction versus alternative history

Jennie Lay and Michelle Dover/For Steamboat Pilot & Today
"The Last Midwife," by Sandra Dallas
Courtesy photo

“The Last Midwife”

by Sandra Dallas

Hot on the trail of winning her fourth WILLA Literary Award for “A Quilt for Christmas,” Colorado-based bestselling author Sandra Dallas gives readers another historical novel that transpires close to home and retains her adept commitment to showcasing the female perspective.



“The Last Midwife” is set in an 1880s mining upstart called Swandyke, a real Summit County ghost town located in the Tenmile Range, somewhere in the vicinity of Breckenridge. As the story follows the polarizing murder trial of Gracy Brookens, the town’s only midwife, Dallas conjures a profile of rough-hewn mountain people scrounging for gold nuggets above treeline and surviving on a beautiful but unrelenting landscape.

Gracy is a deeply respected woman with a critical occupation in a remote mining town where childbirth is often a harrowing experience. She holds her patients and their babies in highest regard.



In her wisdom and empathy, Gracy harbors their secrets, soothes their physical and emotional pains, and compartmentalizes her own deep angst when citizens turn against her after she is accused of murdering the infant son of a powerful mine owner. Truths are tested. Answers are anything but straightforward.

Saloons and brothels make obligatory narrative appearances, as few mining camp tales can evade those lurid truths, but Dallas ushers her readers into alternative realms of a hardscrabble life through the daily trials of dignified women who are simply trying to have babies, raise families and make the most of brave new lives.

Gracy’s good work is complicated by closely-held secrets, both her own and those of her clients. A murder trial gives the unraveling story an ongoing tension reminiscent of a legal thriller, while personal dramas whip up circus theater worthy of readers’ expectations for a story set in the 1880s Wild West.

Dallas, a past Literary Sojourn author, returns to Steamboat Springs to talk about “The Last Midwife” at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 22 in Library Hall. This free event is part of the Bud Werner Memorial Library’s ongoing Library Author Series.

— Jennie Lay

“The Man in the High Castle”

by Philip K. Dick

“The Man in the High Castle” is an award-winning 1962 novel by Philip K. Dick. The novel has recently been adapted for television by Amazon’s streaming service.

Dick creates a world in which Germany and Japan won World War II: The Nazis rule the eastern portion of the United States, and the Japanese rule the West Coast. Most of Colorado lies in the neutral zone, slavery has been reinstituted and American Jews have not fared well.

Despite being an alternative history novel, it isn’t what you would probably expect. Of course, the Nazis are still horrifying, but the story revolves more around the Western states. The Japanese are the most respected members of American society and obsessed with acquiring American historical artifacts.

The heart of the story revolves around the ethical decisions of the main characters.

The ancient Chinese oracle, the I Ching, is consulted when making moral decisions. The American personality is gone and with it, the idea of democracy. Dick disrupts the reader’s American identity in order for the reader to examine who they might be without it.

He explores perception as it applies to the self, suggesting our illusionary interpretations of reality. “The Man in the High Castle” is a dark, atmospheric read, prime for discussion.

Attend the Bud Werner Library Book Club’s new Science Fiction Series as a way of exploring and expanding your definition of science fiction, including an upcoming discussion of “The Man in the High Castle.” For more information about the series, visit the library or steamboatlibrary.org.

— Michelle Dover

Jennie Lay is the adult programs coordinator and Michelle Dover is the circulation services manager at the Bud Werner Memorial Library. These books are available at the Bud Werner Memorial Library and at Off the Beaten Path Bookstore.


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