Thursday, April 12, 2018

Guest Post: Widow 1881 by Sara Dahmen

Please join me in welcoming Sara Dahmen to Let Them Read Books! I'm thrilled to have Sara here today with a guest post about the inspiration for her historical novel Widow 1881 and the desire to write about "normal" women. Read on, and check out Sara's line of copper cookware inspired by her novel!

The Dakota Territories held promise for misfits, outlaws, and hardened pioneers, but would Flats Junction offer enough
sanctuary and hope for the widow from Back East? Boston widow Jane Weber moves to the Dakota Territories to reinvent herself. Stirring up controversy, Jane rooms with the last Blackfoot Sioux in town and navigates a mercurial friendship with the fiercely independent town grocer. She finds everyone has an untold story, including her unpredictable employer, the town doctor.

The print version of Widow 1881 has charming illustrations and a map of the Flats Junction, Dakota, area. Both the epub and print editions come with Book Club Questions, Historical References, and Notes for the Reader.

The notion to write in the late 1800s in the Dakota Territories happened when I sat down at my computer and began to write. And suddenly I had a woman on a train. I didn’t know her name or where she was going. I didn’t know who she would meet. I had a vague idea of her final destination.
Unfolding Widow 1881 onto the page was almost like reading it for the first time. I explored the world, the characters, and the internal conflict of the protagonist, Jane Weber, as if I was not the author, but you – the final reader.

Afterward, in the extensive editing process, suddenly the world Jane inhabits, this fictional town – Flats Junction – and its location at a very real junction on the Milwaukee Road rail line, became part of a six-book series. There are over 200 characters who all play a part throughout the books, and the overarching story revolves around three women: a tinsmith, a grocer, and a housekeeper.

Widow 1881 is your introduction to Jane Weber, a curious woman who hides that curiosity under a curated shell of respectability. Because of that, her unexpected pregnancy in her widowhood threatens to crack her wide open, and she leaves Boston to tackle a new life in the West, knowing she can hide under layers of lies where no one knows her. Her attempt to build a new story for herself is in a state of constant upheaval. She must live with a Sioux woman, cannot figure out Kate Davies, who runs the general store, and realizes her employer, the town doctor, is disliked by half of Flats Junction. On top of it all, she has no idea how to be a housekeeper in the West, least of all while pregnant.

Most of the characters in Widow 1881 are fictional, like Jane herself. However, the outside influences of the 1880s were extremely specific and dictated the actions, options, and sensibilities of so many of the characters. Everything from the stuffy rules about train travel in Victorian years to the exploding changes in science, biology, and medicine was up for grabs, and so I pulled them in. Widow 1881 takes place immediately following that horrific winter (Recall Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter? Yeah, that one.) and catastrophic flooding in southern South Dakota. This is also when Sitting Bull, the last holdout from the Plains Wars, finally was brought into custody, and President Garfield was assassinated (and actually died from improper medical care, not the bullet!).

The research for Widow 1881 made me realize just how tenacious childbirth was and how commonly women and children died. One of the advertisements in the newspapers I read from the time period would include ads taken out by mothers who had lost babies and hired out their breasts and milk. Plus, the amount of time in the kitchen spent making food and preparing food was astronomical (and it inspired my cookware line!). We sure are lucky not only to have modern medicine, but modern food options!

Jane has to juggle all of the issues of her time because they are part of the world she inhabits, but also she has her own internal struggles, insecurities, and character flaws, just like the rest of us. She may not completely get along with all the women in town. She may not be sure if other people like her. And she certainly gets tongue-tied at times. I wanted to write about a normal woman. Someone who doesn’t do things outside-the-box. Someone who operates within the confines of culture while still struggling to be true to herself. Not all of us are Calamity Jane. Most of us are "just Jane." Special in our own right, of course, but making a difference in the corner of our little space, not on a grand scale. And there is something beautiful about writing about a single piece of the tapestry, to slow it down and really dig into the reality of a person’s journey.

The ultimate joy from writing historical fiction is the ability to wrap fiction and nonfiction together and pass along information in an extremely entertaining way (I hope!). If you decide to pick up Widow 1881, I hope you fall headlong into the 1880s and enjoy your visit. When you leave, I hope that pioneer spirit has grabbed your heart once more and made you feel as though anything is possible.

Sara Dahmen is an award-winning novelist and a coppersmith who builds cookware in her garage. You can learn more at or She resides in Wisconsin with her family.

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