Friday, February 24, 2012

A review of Richard S. Wheeler's novel, 'The Richest Hill On Earth'

A review by Chérie Newman, producer of The Write Question, originally published in the Billings Gazette.

In the spring of 1892, an ambitious newspaperman looked through the grimy window of a passenger train as it arrived in Butte. Thick "sulphurous smoke" stung his eyes when he stepped outside and looked around. But John Fellowes Hall was not in Butte for the scenery. He didn't care that "the russet hill was burdened with a cancerous mélange of buildings, cramped into gulches, teetering on slopes, while Butte, as far as the eye could see through the jaundiced smoke, seemed to seethe."
This was a place to make money, to advance his career, and to form an alliance with one of the wealthiest men in American: William Andrews Clark. And indeed, in Richard S. Wheeler's novel "The Richest Hill on Earth," Clark hires Hall to edit his newspaper, the Butte Mineral. From there, however, Hall's plan to get rich and make a name for himself fizzles, although his journey into obscurity turns out to be more exciting than he could have imagined.

Hall's career is ground up in the nefarious politics and shenanigans associated with the battle between the Copper Kings: Clark, Marcus Daly, and F. Augustus Heinze. But Hall was only one of the tens of thousands who were exploited, often to their deaths, by this greedy triumvirate. Many of Wheeler's characters endure brutal weather, squalid living conditions and the drudgery of work in unsafe mines. That people would stay in such an unappealing place and allow themselves to be exploited seems proof that money has an irrational power over otherwise rational human beings.

In spite of the undertaker's brisk rate of business, the population grew rapidly as people from around the world, especially Ireland, poured in. By the early 1900s, Butte was home to around 100,000 immigrants, all hoping for a better life. What they endured is so much the stuff of legend that after more than a century, the story still fascinates us.

Wheeler has done his homework. The novel includes sensational historical events and larger-than-life people, the men who made headlines at the turn of the last century. But "The Richest Hill on Earth" is also populated by well-rounded fictional characters, people who are imbued with the right amount of desperation, vice and stamina. A widow with children to support refuses to allow a union boss to marry her off to the highest bidder. A mortician, one of the few with the means to escape, squanders his ample income on drugs and prostitutes. A reluctant psychic takes donations in order to feed herself, although she'd rather not "see" the future.

This is the story of what happens when the disparity between the 1% and everyone else reaches outrageous proportions. It's a story about monumental greed and the massive environmental exploitation that rendered a place nearly uninhabitable. It's a story that's been told many times in history books and novels. But, in the hands of six-time Spur Award winner Wheeler, a well-worn bit of Montana's history has become an entertaining tale of human resilience, adaptability, and hope.

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