By Kevin S. Giles
It’s a temptation to build novels around Butte. Anyone who asks “Butte where?” hasn’t been listening.
Butte, Montana. Butte, America. Butte, for crying out loud.
Mile High City. Mile High, Mile Deep. The Mining City. Richest Hill on Earth. You know.
Once home to Italians, Serbs, Cornish, Irish, Welsh, Finns and a dozen other nationalities who converged on the city, way back, when the mines ran dark and deep and coughed out copper by the ton. Right?
Today Butte is a lesser place, shorn of many of those characters that made it one of the strangest, naughtiest, more daring cities in America. Back then, of course, when men mined tunnels a mile underground and died of accidents, fires and explosions or, later, the lung disease from the poisonous dust they inhaled. Back then.
Still, Montana writers seize on the Butte of legend, as Richard Wheeler did with his historical novel, The Richest Hill on Earth, and as Ivan Doig did with his companion stories, Work Song and Sweet Thunder. The old fabled Butte made a fitting backdrop for Doig’s protagonist Morrie Morgan, a composite character, laden with a scandalous past in Chicago. His fictional hijinks there withered in the true historical context of Butte’s smothering copper collar and its real-life color, but that’s no fault of Doig’s storyline. It’s just that it’s hard to compete with Butte, even if you’re from Chicago.
Some years before I put the first words of Summer of the Black Chevy to paper, I lived in Butte in an uptown apartment. The cavernous rooms on Granite Street sat in the midst of old Butte, a city encumbered with long-empty brick buildings that once teemed with humanity. Empty buildings, yes, but just as many empty lots where magnificent buildings full of people once stood. To drown all that thirst, the uptown district at its peak had 535 bars. Back then.
When I lived there, snow fell heavy one night, softening Butte’s rough unshaven face. I trudged through the drifts down Granite Street, east toward the lights of what remains of the business district. The Hill was silent. Those deep mines were closed and sealed. Big rooming houses sat dark.
I was alone on the street, or so I thought. Ahead of me I heard yelling. Profane belligerent yelling. There in the storm of swirling snow, in the middle of the street, sat a man in a wheelchair. I saw nobody else on the street, not even a passing car. He informed me he was trying to get to jail but his chair was stuck in the snow. Being the helpful type, I pushed him while he ranted and cursed, and then it hit me. He was old Butte, but a remnant of it, and I was his only witness.
I rang the bell, waiting for a jailer. She swung open the big door. “Oh, him,” she told me. “He’s down here every night.” Then, when I didn’t leave, she offered, “We’ll take care of him.” I walked away, seeing the wheelchair’s tracks already disappearing in the flurry of flakes. “Thanks, buddy!” the man called after me.
Hadn’t I just read that uptown Butte once embraced the rowdiest wide-open swarm of characters in the West? Gambling houses going all night, miners streaming off shift and into Venus Alley for their whores, bars never closing? (The Atlantic, by the way, had a bar a block long.) Did all those people fold like yesterday’s newspaper and blow away in the winds of change? Where was the cackle and the clamor, the vice and vitality, the Butte of lore?
And so, like other Montana authors who read something of old Butte and wanted to tell of it, I swooned to the same spell. A main character in my novel, Louie Moretti, came from Butte. He was born of the city’s history and its tumult, raised in my real-world observations. He’s nobody, really, and everybody.
Summer of the Black Chevy is set in Deer Lodge, Montana, about 40 miles northwest of Butte. Despite their proximity, they have little in common. Deer Lodge is a small town, orderly but slow about its business. Butte remains a city, a shadow of its boisterous image, lost without its past and uncertain about its future.
Given that my story takes place in 1965, I wrote of Butte’s bright lights and its working class bungalows that once stood shoulder to shoulder across the Hill, and a wake that takes place in one of those “shotgun”-style houses.
I’ll leave the rest for readers of Summer of the Black Chevy.
(Kevin S. Giles wrote the novel Summer of the Black Chevy, and Jerry’s Riot, the examination of Montana’s 1959 prison disturbance. He also wrote the biography Flight of the Dove: The Story of Jeannette Rankin.)