As a relative newcomer to Montana, I’ll admit to a bit of romantic tendency. When I prepped to move here four years ago, I was absolutely sure my inner fisherwoman would just inherently attract the trout; I thought about living in a log cabin and communing with bears; I wanted to adopt a barstool at the Oxford, my future home away from home. Since that time I’ve taken not more than one fishing lesson (with waders that came up to my ears), have wizened to the reality that the nice bears living up in the Rattlesnake are not the Care Bears of my childhood, and have yet to so much as step foot inside the Ox (though I haven’t completely given up on that particular pipe dream).
Now, with a nicely attuned sense of my own hypocrisy, I get righteously annoyed when young writers stereotype the West. Barroom brawls, saloon girls, horses on the range and the notion that vast land will automatically provide clarity are all symbols of a bygone era that read cheaply in most modern fiction. What exactly a new generation of Western writers might bring to the table is speculation for another review, but for now let’s leave the legacy of Montana’s early days to an earlier generation.
Let us simply re-read what writers like Richard K. O’Malley have already left for us.
Mile High Mile Deep, O’Malley’s memoir of his teenage years in Butte during the mid-1920s, was written in the early ’60s when the author worked as an Associated Press Bureau Chief in Paris. Originally published soon afterward by Missoula’s Mountain Press Publishing, then reissued in paperback by a Helena-based press three years prior to O’Malley’s death in 1999, Mile High Mile Deep has now been reprinted in a beautifully rendered hardcover edition by Russell Chatham’s Clark City Press out of Livingston.
Despite its importance as arguably the most accurate first-hand account of Butte in its heyday, Mile High Mile Deep is relatively unknown compared to iconic Western novels and memoirs like This House of Sky and A River Runs through It. Beginning and ending with the deaths of two miners (subtly illustrating the dangers of the industry that once made Butte so wealthy), the memoir incorporates a series of acutely rendered reminiscences of Butte’s mining culture, including a chaotic eight-week union strike during which gunmen hired by the mining companies were beaten in public and miners who refused to strike had their households dismantled on their front lawns.
Though O’Malley composed the memoir in Paris in his early 50s, he writes as his 16-year-old self, seamlessly moving from neighborhood to neighborhood. The Butte of O’Malley’s childhood was home to a symphony, 12 theaters where the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford performed, and over 300,000 people, from over 30 different countries, speaking at least 15 different languages. O’Malley walks us through the red light district where a prostitute asks for a bite from his friend’s hamburger, and the neighborhood where characters like Nickel Annie and Shoestring Annie each make their particular marks. And then there’s the bizarrely fascinating ritual wherein members of one Slavic community (“the Bohunks”) put Mesopust, “a man-sized dummy stuffed with straw and dressed up,” on trial for anything and everything that may have gone wrong in the community during the past year.
O’Malley’s young narrator employs a kind of intense, immediate prose that allows a reader to forget the author is actually an experienced journalist writing far from Butte. Presumably, this was O’Malley’s artistic intention, one that afforded him simplicity of language and that seamless narrative quality. Despite this, the memoir loses something with the absence of the adult O’Malley. We’re dying to know what this now-worldly man (O’Malley’s first newspaper job was with the Missoulian in 1933), whose job it has been for most of his adult life to make heads or tales of cultural events, actually thinks of those bygone days in Butte. How do those days inform his present? Seemingly, memoir encourages an author to syncopate time, and what Mile High Mile Deep lacks is the reflection of its author. As a result, the structure is willy-nilly, with chapters that can feel like laundry lists of events.
Oh, but what a list.
“Then the men came,” O’Malley writes. “And one of them grubbed onto the hill and found copper. Others came and they ripped the guts out of the Hill. They pitched gallows frames and put cages on them. And they went deep into the ground for the copper, always the copper…Talk English at school. Talk Czech, Italian, Yugoslav, Finn, Swede, Norwegian at home…And the whores came. Mercury Street, Galena Street, the Black Cat, the cribs along the street and the girls tapping with their knitting needles to get your eye…And the town grew. She brawled and fought and laughed and tunneled and blasted and dug and shoveled. Butte, a mile high and a mile deep. Get the rock in the box.”
With a population of just over 30,000, today’s Butte often feels like a ghost town on the verge of some kind of revival. This fact alone makes the voices in the memoir particularly haunting—and particularly appropriate. Mile High Mile Deep stands securely as an instructive and important work for anyone even remotely interested in how the stories of the West are told.