I've been a fan of Sandra Dallas' books since I read The Persian Pickle Club. Her books combine strong, fascinating women, some history, and, there's usually some quilting in them, a practice that drew women together. Next Tuesday, she'll be speaking here in Phoenix to a group of librarians, for our annual meeting called "Back to the Beach." I'm finally going to get to meet Sandra Dallas!
It's truly an honor to introduce you to Sandra Dallas, so she can tell you about an historical event in her latest book, Whiter Than Snow. Thank you, Sandra!
The Great Sultana
One of the things I like best about writing is the opportunity to explore subjects that interest me, and I did just that in Whiter Than Snow. I researched the mining towns and the Civil War, the wretched conditions of former slaves after that war, the status of women in the early 20th century and their lack of options. And I learned all about the Mississippi riverboat called the Great Sultana.
I’d first heard about the Sultana 45 years ago. My husband, Bob, was the first public relations director of the Breckenridge ski area in Colorado, and in 1965 or thereabouts, a newspaper reporter arranged for a singing group to visit Breckenridge for a publicity story. The group was the Back Porch Majority, a sort of farm team for the New Christie Minstrels, although the Back Porch was a popular musical group in its own right.
Bob and I loved these singers (one of them broke his leg skiing, as I recall,) and we went to the Denver night club where they were performing to hear them. Of all their songs, the one that appealed to me most was “The Great Sultana”--I think that was the title. I’ve always been intrigued with steamboats, because my mother grew up in Moline, Illinois, on the Mississippi River, and I remember when I was about 10, taking a steamboat across the river from Moline to Davenport, Iowa. But it was the story of the Sultana itself that haunted me.
So many years later, when I was casting about for a subject for a novel, I remembered the Sultana and did a fair amount of research on it. Here’s its story:
At the end of the Civil War, the United States engaged several Mississippi steamers to carry Union soldiers up the river to Cairo, Illinois, and various other points. The Sultana was one of those boats. It was hired to transport survivors of the notorious Andersonville prison camp, most of whom had walked from Georgia to Vicksburg, where they were to board the boat, so they were weak and in ill health. The Sultana was registered to carry 376. Instead, more than 2,000 passengers and crew were on board when the boat left Vicksburg.
The Mississippi was at flood stage. At 2 a.m. on April 27, 1865, just above Memphis, the Sultana’s boilers exploded. The passengers and crew were burned in the explosion or were thrown or jumped into the river to almost certain death. Some 1,800 passengers and crew died. That compares with 1,500 of 2,300 passengers and crew killed on the Titanic, and it makes the sinking of the Sultana the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history. Few people know about the Sultana however, because it blew up in the West, and most of the newspapers were in the East. Besides, Americans were tired of hearing about the Civil War and didn’t want to read more stories about death. There was an official inquiry, but nothing much came of it.
I’d wanted to write about the Sultana for a long time, but I couldn’t base a whole novel based on the tragedy, because I write mostly about women, and there were only a half-dozen women on board. I referred to the Sultana in Alice’s Tulips, but I wanted to do more with it. So when I started writing Whiter Than Snow, I realized I could build one of the sections around the Sultana, and I think that’s my favorite part of the whole book.
Thank you so much, Sandra, for a glimpse into the background of Whiter Than Snow.
Sandra Dallas' website is www.SandraDallas.com
Whiter Than Snow by Sandra Dallas. St. Martin's Press, ©2010. ISBN 9780312600150 (hardcover), 304p.