Ask Dawn Hall about her new book, Comfort Food for Your Soul (Harvest House, $9.99), and the first thing she says is, "It's a God thing."
The charismatic Swanton woman and nationally known cookbook author, who spent more than six years helping her husband, Tracy, battle cancer only to lose him in a fluke household accident, also wants it known that despite the tremendous difficulties she writes about, she did not want her book to sound like she's complaining or whining.
"I tried to sprinkle and flavor the book with humor and I wanted to encourage the reader to enjoy life even in the midst of the pain," Mrs. Hall, 42, said in an interview this week.
Her story has been reported in The Blade and in the national Christian media, but Comfort Food for Your Soul is the first time it has been told entirely in her own words.
She spent about a year writing the book after the idea was suggested by editors at Harvest House, a major Christian publishing company whose list of authors includes Tim and Beverly LaHaye, Michelle McKinney Hammond, Stormie Omartian, and Kay Arthur.
Mrs. Hall's book is a soul-baring, heart-rending story of love and loss, including the strain of singlehandedly coping with the financial and emotional stress of her husband's illness, both for herself and for the couple's two daughters, Whitney, now 17, and Ashley, 15.
"Our life was hard, but God was good," she writes. "I was so thankful that I did not view this as an either/or statement."
In February, 2000, in the midst of the family's health crisis, the Halls' home that Tracy had built by hand erupted in flames after a fireplace malfunctioned. Only the house's outer frame could be salvaged.
At times, Mrs. Hall writes, she exploded in anger, yelling at the ones she loves the most - her family, friends, and God.
A present from heaven?
Since Tracy Hall’s death, Dawn has remarried, and one of the gifts she opened after the wedding was a blessing from her late husband.
“Tracy had made a video that I knew nothing about,” Mrs. Hall said, “and he gave it to one of his best friends to put in with our wedding gifts.”
She said she and Mr. Hall had discussed the possibility of his death during his battle with cancer, but she was unaware that he had put a message for her on fi lm. In the video, she said, Mr. Hall fi rst tells their two daughters that “I’m your Dad and I’ll always be your Dad, but I want you to love your new father.”
He then tells Mrs. Hall that “it’s time for you to move on and fi nd happiness” and he gives her his blessing to remarry.
“I was shocked. Stunned. I just bawled the whole time,” Mrs. Hall said. “I was stunned that he was that thoughtful, that he wanted that much happiness for me. “Giving me his approval and affi rmation that everything was OK, that I had his blessing . . . I just thought it was remarkable.”
Tracy’s video was “one of the greatest gifts I ever received in my life,” Mrs. Hall said.
She said, not jokingly, that she is thankful to live on five acres "in the middle of nowhere" because if neighbors had seen her yelling in her backyard, they would have filed police reports of a "wild woman" on the loose.
"I tried to be as real and as raw as possible in the book," Mrs. Hall said in the interview, "and take responsibility and accountability for my wrong actions, so that other people that are going through devastating circumstances can relate."
Comfort Food for Your Soul is loosely structured like a cookbook, an allusion to Mrs. Hall's series of cookbooks. It includes hefty doses of food-related metaphors as well as some real-life recipes at the end of each chapter.
Being an author was never in Mrs. Hall's plans, but she turned to writing a cookbook out of desperation to raise money for her husband's medical treatment.
Tracy, her sweetheart since junior high school, was 32 years old in the fall of 1994 when he first began experiencing sharp pains, numbness, and loss of balance. Doctors soon detected a baseball-sized tumor in his brain.
After extensive prayer and research, the Halls opted for treatment from Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski, a Houston physician. But the nontoxic cancer treatment was considered "alternative" medicine, meaning it was not covered by insurance or government programs.
The price tag was an initial $20,000, followed by $3,500 a month.
At the time, Mrs. Hall was earning $6.25 an hour as an assistant activities director, Tracy was no longer able to work, and they had $3,000 in their savings.
She said God gave her the idea
assistant activities director, Tracy was no longer able to work, and they had $3,000 in their savings.
She said God gave her the idea to write cookbook, speaking to her in "a small, still voice" as described in the Bible. Using recipes she had been collecting for years, Mrs. Hall invested their savings into publishing 1,000 copies of Down Home Cooking Without the Down Home Fat.
She thought it was about 975 copies too many. "You're nuts!" she remembers thinking. "How are you ever going to sell a thousand cookbooks?"
When people began to buy them, her first thought was that it was just to help her and Tracy raise money.
But that first printing sold out in five days, and 10 weeks later 18,000 cookbooks had been sold.
She now has written five cookbooks, three of which remain in print, and the books are obviously selling on their own merits. Her first book won the "Best Cookbook of the Year" award in 1996 from the North American Bookdealers Exchange and in 1998, her second cookbook, Busy People's Low-Fat Cookbook, earned the same honor.
All told, Mrs. Hall has sold more than 750,000 cookbooks.
But Comfort Food for Your Soul was a totally different type of book. In it, Mrs. Hall tells her life story in a series of fast-flowing memories, holding nothing back.
She said she wanted to be "brutally honest."
"I purposely wanted to talk about wounds," she said. "They're healed now, but I wanted to talk about open wounds that are not talked about, because people who are in that situation, who are dealing with the situation of a spouse who is terminally ill or seriously physically impaired .●.●. we have to deal with those issues - the sexual frustration and the financial bondage - and so often it's not talked about."
The story is truly tragic, yet her indomitable spirit shines through. And even in the darkest times, the Halls remained steadfast in their faith and hope in Jesus Christ.
Mrs. Hall's new book includes dozens of Bible verses that provided comfort and strength during her struggles.
"There were times when I was angry at God and I'd be bawling and not even know what I was feeling, but I knew He would," Mrs. Hall said. "Tears are an honest way of communicating with God."
Half of her tears were from a combination of exhaustion, sexual frustration, and financial stress, she said. The other half were tears of joy.
"It was out of thankfulness," Mrs. Hall said. "God was just so good. I had to raise $3,500 a month all those years and I was never late on a house payment."
One time, she said, friends lost their barn and horses in a blaze, she and Tracy wanted to help - but not with just a few dollars. They prayed together and that day more than $250 arrived in the mail, which they were able to give to their friends.
"He was just so faithful," Mrs. Hall said. "Even now, during praise and worship at church, I have a hard time not crying. I'm overwhelmed with gratitude."
Early in 2001, after more than six years of treatment, Tracy was declared cancer-free and taken off the hospice waiting list, Mrs. Hall said.
Just a few months later, as he was bringing a gift to their neighbor's house, Tracy fainted, struck his head on concrete, and died of a brain hemorrhage.
Mrs. Hall said neither she nor Tracy ever asked God the question: "Why me?"
"First of all, who am I to have God be accountable to me? We're accountable to Him. He doesn't have to answer to us. And the Bible says [in Romans 8:28]: 'All things work together for good to those who love God.' I knew it was all going to be used for good, even though I didn't know how.
"I think that for people who ask 'Why?' I think the real question is: 'Why not?' Why not you? Why not me? What makes [you] or me any different?"
Mrs. Hall will list all upcoming book-signings and speaking engagements on her Web site, www.dawnhallcookbooks.com.