Wheeler (The Deliverance, 2003, etc.) brings to life robber barons, Irish immigrant miners and lost souls among the trash heaps and bawdy houses, headframes and smelters of 1890s Butte, Mont.
Two iron men grow rich as copper, silver and gold are pried from the ground to power the Industrial Revolution. Marcus Daly, a miner who blasted his way to ownership of Anaconda Copper, and William Andrews Clark, a dour and bloodless Scot, war over The Richest Hill on Earth, and the casualties litter Butte, a "battered, filthy, chaotic, ugly city." Miners do the hard work that makes the copper capitalists rich, miners who earn three-and-half dollars a day and die of silicosis, tuberculosis and typhus in the shadow of pristine mountains. Wheeler adds the rapacious Rockefellers and a real-life opportunist named F. Augustus Heinze, but the power within this beautifully researched novel lives through the fictional characters that rage among the pits, sheds, stamp mills and saloons. There is J. Fellowes Hall, a newspaperman imported by Clark to edit his mouthpiece, the Butte Mineral. Clark lusts for an appointment to the U.S. Senate no matter the cost in bribes and "boodlers." There is Slanting Agnes, a "fey woman" who catches flashes of the future. Royal Maxwell, a syphilitic undertaker, finds comfort on Mercury Street, "precinct of the bawds." "Red Alice" Brophy, a Dublin Gulch widow and dollar-a-day washerwoman, grows angry, begins to agitate for socialism and the ouster of corrupt union leader Big Johnny Boyle, earning beatings as a reward. Wheeler’s work isn't character study, nor is it a shoot-’em-up, hero-centric tale. It is a mirror to a time and place where copper, for wires, for brass, for war and peace was clawed from the earth by men as disposable as machinery, men left without care or comfort to hide away in the tunnels so they might once more be warm as they cough up their lives.
Passionate, intelligently written, thoroughly entertaining historical fiction.