Book Review: Old Butte finds new life

Copper Sky, by Milana Marsenich, Open Books, 2017. 336 pages, $16.95.

Milana Marsenich gets a lot of things right in “Copper Sky,” her debut novel about Butte in the days of the Copper Kings.

The book opens with the warehouse fire of 1895, a disaster that set off high explosives that killed at least 51 people, including seven full-time firefighters. It ends with the Speculator Mine disaster of 1917, which killed 168 people.

What happens in between feels a lot like Butte must have been like at the time: vibrant, brawling, corrupt and hazardous. Marsenich, who lives in Montana and has a master of fine arts degree from the University of Montana, works hard to get the atmosphere right, and she largely succeeds.

Unfortunately, she doesn’t quite come up with a story that does justice to the setting, and many readers may come away from the book as much annoyed as enlightened.

The novel focuses on two characters: Kaly Shane, a prostitute with a baby on the way, and Marika Lailich, whose heart is set on becoming a doctor rather than the unwilling wife in a marriage arranged by her parents.

These are appealing characters, drawn together in unexpected ways by disaster, but they wear out their welcome. Kaly struggles so hard to overcome the mysterious childhood death of her twin sister that it comes up in just about every scene in which Kaly appears. At some point, the reader – or at least this reader – begins to think, just get over it. Life goes on.

Marika is so opposed to her arranged marriage that she never even bothers to get to know her intended. When we finally meet the guy, he seems to be a perfectly decent fellow, although we learn so little of him that it’s hard to tell.

Marika also is so intent on becoming a doctor that she deceptively takes on medical tasks she is unprepared for. She forces her medical ambitions on a local doctor so intensely that it’s a wonder he ever tolerates her at all.

These are lively characters, but there really isn’t enough plot to let them develop. Their lives begin to feel redundant, even tedious. Minor characters, skillfully if superficially sketched, fail to show the potential to rise above minor status.

The book’s cover says, “The feminine spirit of the West comes alive in early twentieth century Montana.” If that is the case, then the book illustrates how tenuous a proposition feminism was in those days. “Copper Sky” left at least this reader with little confidence that these characters are on their way to becoming accomplished, confident and indomitable women.

Marsenich’s prose is always adequate and often luminous. This typical passage illustrates both the strengths and weaknesses of her style: “Marika sat on the rock wall across the street from her family’s tiny house, hands shoved into the large pockets of her brown wool coat. The black velvet collar softly hugged her neck and she pushed her chin into it. Keeping her eyes tightly focused on Mama and Papa’s door she looked for movement and listened for the sounds of dinner: a pot banging down, a fork clanking against a plate, a full cup setting down hard on the wooden table. She crossed herself and willed her spirit across the street, through the door, inside the sweltering house to test the mood, while she sat at a safe distance.”

Note the fine use of detail, the sure rhythm, the clear sense of time and place. But how does Marika hope to see movement by staring at a door? And how does she expect to test the mood through the sheer will of her spirit? The passage muddles as much as it enlightens.

None of this is to suggest that the book isn’t worth reading. The most notorious of the Butte-based novels – “The Story of Mary MacLane,” Myron Brinig’s “Wide Open Town,” even Dashiell Hammett’s “Red Harvest” — have their shortcomings. As the “Butte, America” catchphrase, indicates, if even the entire state of Montana isn’t big enough to contain that city, then no single novel is going to do the job.

To her great credit, Marsenich has written a worthy first novel that does as much to capture the spirit and feel of early Butte as anything I’ve read. Perhaps that’s enough, and one hopes there is more to come.

Comments are closed.