Determined to finish a story I began a few years ago, set in my hometown of Butte, Montana, I had no idea where it would lead. What began as memoir has morphed into a historical fiction novel, with fictitious characters based on real people and events.
I’ve always wanted to write a story with Butte as the setting, because of its colorful culture and history. I grew up loving and hating my hometown and couldn’t wait to leave it. Once gone, though, my perspective changed. First, I learned I couldn’t go home again, couldn’t know my hometown as I did before. I knew it as a child, not an adult. Butte didn’t change, I did.
Now, when I visit, I discover things I didn’t appreciate before. I value and appreciate the people who I have shared history with, more than before. I’ve also made a shameful discovery: I never really knew Butte. And while I thought I knew her history, I didn’t.
I feel like I’ve missed something. I never appreciated where I grew up. I didn’t realize how Butte’s people shaped me. I took a 49 Writers class recently taught by Deb Vanasse, who asked what compelled me to write this book. I couldn’t answer. I couldn’t answer because I was afraid to dig deep into places I wasn’t sure I wanted to go.
But isn’t that how we discover who we are?
It takes a unique, quirky town to raise a kid. Butte was that way—almost to a fault. I finally figured that out, which is a theme in this novel.
Growing up, I made my way through this rough-and-tumble place, along with everyone else, and what I experienced I’ve always thought to be normal. That is, until I circulated my first draft chapters around writing critique groups in faraway Alaska, who told me, no—my experiences weren’t exactly “normal.” So what is normal? I’ve read a plethora of memoirs and coming-of-age novels about people who had weirder, more whacked-out experiences than me. I’ve decided normal is just a frame of mind.
I can answer the question now. I’m writing this book as a tribute to the people of Butte, the good, the bad, the ugly, the quirky. My challenge is to do it justice—to write it so when it is hopefully read, there will be nods and smiles of understanding. It’s a tall order. I figure by declaring this out in the blogosphere, I won’t give up on it—which is always tempting—because my Butte peeps will hold my feet to the fire.
In the meantime, I’m getting to know my hometown—really knowing it—for the first time. I explored every nook and cranny of Butte last summer: I drove her streets, walked around and toured the Copper King Mansion and other sites, and researched history at the Archives Office. I can’t write a story set 60 years ago without first knowing the history behind the history. I’m reading The War of the Copper Kings, by C.B. Glasscock, written in 1934, and a host of other books. It’s fun reading Butte’s history, because the texts read like novels.
In 1973, I took a class at University of Montana, “Montana and the West,” taught by K. Ross Toole. To say that he was a popular professor was an understatement. His class was impossible to get into, and when I finally did, students and other professors sneaked in for standing room only lectures. His lively lectures about Butte’s history and the war of the copper kings was brilliantly re-enacted. He had passion for telling the story of copper mining and the havoc wreaked in what began as a small mining camp in the late 19th century on a hill, called Summit City. His lectures were spectacular.
Ever since Toole’s class, I’ve wanted to write a novel set in Butte. I didn’t start until now. Well, better late than never. What a wild ride this will be.
Lois Paige Simenson lives in Eagle River and writes for newspapers, magazines, and blogs at loispaigesimenson.com. She is working on two novels, The Butte Girls Club and Otter Rock.