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King of the hill

Wheeler's novel vividly mines Butte history



For wealth inequality, political scandals and plain seediness, there were few cities that could top late 20th century Butte. Six-time Spur Award winner and author of around 50 previous novels (!), Richard S. Wheeler has written an un-idealized chronicle of Butte in The Richest Hill on Earth, choosing a fiery era to scrutinize one of the roughest cities on any kind of map: a dreamscape for extravagant capitalists and something close to a nightmare for miners and women.

Beginning in 1892, The Richest Hill on Earth starts with East Coast newspaperman John Fellowes Hall arriving in Butte at the behest of Copper King William Andrews Clark to edit Clark's paper, the Butte Mineral. Hall's only responsibilities are to slander Clark's rivals and secure him a seat in the U.S. Senate. Quickly, Hall finds a city brimming with corruption, colorfully nicknamed lowlifes, wretched poverty and, of course, trainloads of the copper that makes up the majority of the city's business. Soon, Hall transforms Mineral into a yellow rag of sensationalism and gossip. In Butte, however, as Wheeler unspools his half dozen leading characters, everybody is out to pocket the riches that lay just below them. "That's what Butte was all about," Wheeler writes. "Wealth yanked from the bowels of the city."

But The Richest Hill on Earth is not about any one person. Rather, it encapsulates a small babel of conflicting voices that swirl around the bleak city. Foremost is Clark himself, a ludicrously affluent (the second richest person in the world, he insists) owner of many of Butte's mines. Then there's Marcus Daly, Clark's great enemy and founder of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company, who dreams of Anaconda being the state capital. Add to that a downcast psychic, a widower turned laundress turned leftist agitator (Red Alice Brophy), a greedy mortician suffering innumerable venereal diseases, a pimping union boss named Big Johnny Boyle and a couple of silent Rockefellers intent on owning Butte's resources, and you have a rollicking cast on a brutal, Dickensian stage populated with smelters, pits in the earth and fancy hotels.

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  • Richard Wheeler reads from The Richest Hill On Earth at Fact & Fiction Thursday, Feb. 16, at 7 PM. Free.

A 346-page novel about copper trusts, corporate double-dealing, apex litigation and working-class angst has no right to be this exciting, or this reflective. Wheeler unravels the antics of warring financiers and copper barons as though he were eavesdropping, especially those of F. Augustus Heinze, a playboy geologist with a flair for the confounding and the dramatic. The author digs into Heinze's technique of buying lawyers and judges in order to keep Clark and Daly busy while he extracts their ore. The Richest Hill on Earth has a rare knack for simplifying complex legal and industrial hubris without itself becoming simplistic.

Likewise, Wheeler's sketch of the frantic avarice of the Helena legislature circa 1892 to 1907—awash in back-room brokering, impropriety and boodling—is disturbing and impressive. As Wheeler says, "The integrity of the state's government lay in ruins. The integrity of its legislators was wrecked. The editorial independence of nearly every paper in the state was compromised." Tying his intimate story of varying classes of Buttians to the larger-scale changes in the country, brought on by threats to the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, the rise of Populism and a push by unions for better conditions, is both individualized and epic. This is smart, discerning storytelling with an inclination for the unexpected detail that illuminates his characters better than any historical profile. His locales are vibrant places, from the sordid bars favored by miners to the Silver Bow Club, a hangout for the wealthy and the ass-kissing, and are described in chatty abundance.

This is a book about the interchangeable nature of desperation and power, and a close study of the end of the Gilded Age. What could have been an aimless recap of a wild city is transformed in Wheeler's hands into an investigation of the effects that labor and capital have on human beings and how Butte magnified these effects to a glaring degree.

The Richest Hill on Earth is an ambitious and intrepid bit of acrobatic verisimilitude; a tightly focused tapestry of a damaged city. Every chapter overflows with snappy dialogue and dynamic scenes—the horrors of mining, misguided and precocious moguls, the minutiae of empire-building in an industry of zero regulation. It is a heterogeneous mix of first-class scholarship and imaginative insight into people both real and conjured. Wheeler has taken the complexity of early Butte and written the hell out of it. It is as informative as any textbook, and as engrossing as a highbrow thriller. To quote Wheeler, "It was fun, this life in the worst, cruelest, most generous and amusing city in the United States."

I'm generally not the kind of person to gush about historical literature, but this is cause for it.

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