In January of 2020, just before the coronavirus swept the nation, the Belgrade, MT Chapter of PEO International invited me to do a presentation about my novel, Copper Sky, and the history of Butte, Montana. The fundraiser, Books and Bites, supports educational scholarships for women. I was honored and thrilled to present with Valerie Hemingway, a delightful woman who wrote Running with the Bulls, a book about her life with the Hemingways. We complimented each other nicely. I tend to lean toward the tragic, and Valerie is charming and funny.
Educational scholarships for women is a topic close to my heart. My parents insisted I get a college education. My father was a teamster whose last job was a street cleaner. My mother worked for years at the Sweetheart Bakery’s day old store. There was no money for college. So, when they continued to insist, I said, “OK, but how will I pay for it?” They said something like, “You’ll figure it out.”
Figuring it out is a good Butte trait.
I lived in a small house with my parents and three brothers. Since there was only one bedroom, my parents turned the dining room into a sleeping area for themselves, and I shared a room with my three brothers. That worked out fine until we all figured out that I was a girl and not a boy. At that point my parents put a folding bed and a pink chest of drawers out on the back porch for me.
The bed was pushed up against the wall with the head of it against that chest of drawers, creating a corner where I’d sit and write teenage poetry and listen to Joni Mitchell. Joni’s Song for a Seagull talked about dreams. One line stuck with me through the years: “A dream that you tell no one, but the grey sea. They’ll say you are crazy.” Writing was that secret dream for me. For as long as I can remember I wanted to write something poetic and somewhat meaningful, something people would read.
Yet, since there was no money in the family, I knew from the beginning that I’d have to work at a job that paid. And since no one was paying for teenage poetry, I’ve spent my life working at non-writing jobs. But I never gave up that writing dream. Writing is the thread that held and still holds my life together. I’d find a few hours on a weekend or take a writing vacation to a quiet campground. Somehow, Copper Sky came together from those tender scraps of solitude. Somehow, I figured it out.
My father was a great storyteller.
He told me that the old Orthodox Church on Idaho street was on precarious land. It was evidently in danger of falling into the mining tunnels that ran underneath it. In 1965 worries about the Church escalated, and a new church was built at 2100 Continental Drive. My father told me about his father landing in Chicago and gambling away his train ticket to Taft where my grandfather’s brother worked on the railroad. He told me that Taft was the most dangerous town in Montana. He told me about prearranged marriages, something like my grandparents, and he told me about Butte’s famous Red-Light District.
Writing Copper Sky brought these stories together for me.
Marika, a Slavic immigrant resisting a pre-arranged marriage, dreams of becoming a doctor.
Kaly Shane is a pregnant prostitute looking for a safe home for her unborn child. Neither of them knows the family secret that ties them together.
Throughout both books the women try to navigate their lives during and following Butte’s many tragedies.
To Name a few of these tragedies:
- In 1895 a fire started in an uptown warehouse that stored dynamite. The fire drew a crowd. The Butte fire department rushed to the fire, not knowing of the danger they faced. It was illegal to store dynamite within city limits. The dynamite exploded and killed all but one of the members of the Butte department. Including the bystanders, 51 people died.
- In 1917 a cable in The Granite Mountain Mine caught on fire. The plan was to put a ventilation system into the mine. They were dropping the cable down the mine shaft when it got stuck. The foreman lit a light to see what the problem was. The light got too close to the cable, the cable caught fire, and within minutes flames were shooting up the shaft. 168 men died. Fire and Brimstone by Michael Punke and A Darkness Lit by Heroes by Doug Ammons are both gripping books about the Granite Mountain Mine disaster of 1917.
- Two months later in the middle of the night six masked men pulled Frank Little out of his bed in a boarding house on North Wyoming Street. He wore only his underwear. They tied him to the back of a car, dragged him across the town, and hanged him. Who was Frank Little? Here is a quote from Jane Little Botkin’s book, Frank Little and the IWW: The Blood That Stained an American Family: “Frank Little was an early organizer and agitator with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a radical organization intent on inspiring economic revolution and improving quality of life for working men and women. Many in Butte revered him.” His funeral was one of the largest funerals ever held in Butte. Years later, when Jane Little Botkin did a eulogy for him, the event was packed.
- In the fall of 1918, the influenza pandemic went through Butte, MT. It picked up speed quickly. In the space of three months, nearly 1000 Butte people had died from it. Parents lost one or two or all of their children. Children lost one or both parents. Whole families died. Butte and the 1918 Influenza Pandemic (Disaster), by Janelle M. Olberding, is an excellent book about Butte’s experience with the 1918 flu.
I had several things that I wanted to explore when I wrote Copper Sky and Beautiful Ghost.
- How does a woman get to “yes” in a pre-arranged marriage?
- How does a woman make the decision to live such a dangerous lifestyle as prostitution?
- With all the mining accidents and sicknesses, what happened to the women left alone with children, without the means to feed and shelter them?
- How did the fire of 1895 affect those who witnessed it, and lost people in that fire? How did the fire of 1917 affect the townspeople? How did all the previous traumas affect people when the 1918 flu came through town? How does a town with so much heartache and tragedy create so many people with good and generous hearts?
I wanted to write something that demonstrated Butte’s good heart.
I was living in Polson, MT when I saw a woman who was a good friend to my brother, Mark. He had died 30 years earlier and I hadn’t seen her since his death. The first thing she said to me was “I’m sorry about Mark.” Her kindness that day, so many years later, sent me into tears.
I met another woman in Polson who played cards with my grandmother. A man in Missoula asked me if I was Helena Mike’s granddaughter. Senator Mike Mansfield sent a letter of condolence to my grandmother when my grandfather died. Butte people are not easily forgotten. They are remembered for their irreverent kindness, their strong work ethics, and their welcoming natures.
Copper Sky and Beautiful Ghost are dark stories with hope, like much of Butte’s history.
I like to say that Copper Sky and Beautiful Ghost are invitations for compassion. I’ve worked for years as a mental health therapist, and I’ve witnessed much courage and resilience in others. It is a strength that comes right out of the rough lives they’ve lived. I first witnessed this courage, resilience, and generosity of spirit while growing up in the mining town of Butte, Montana.
See, if you are from Butte, you are not only strong and brave, but you are also proud and self-sufficient. Too proud to ask for help. I still remember a day when I was going to MSU in Bozeman, MT and living in an apartment above Main St. with a friend.
We were poor students. We were out of food and money, and we were hungry. So, I did something I never did. I called my father and asked him if I could borrow $20. I started crying on the phone. I felt so bad about asking. He said, yes, of course.
I asked him “Is it ok?”
I never forgot what he said.
He said “What do you mean, is it ok? I have it and you don’t. Of course, it’s ok.”
That is so representative of the Good Heart of Butte people: “I have it and you don’t. Of course, it’s ok.”