Two women – one a prostitute and the other aspiring to become a doctor – thread their ways through the rough, treacherous streets of Butte in the days before World War I. Milana Marsenich, a native of the Mining City who now lives in Polson, weaves their stories together in her debut novel, set against the implacable, ragged Copper Camp. It’s a town where “meager houses tuck into each other like honeycomb … where pasties, polenta, povetica, calzones and spring rolls bake.”
Kaly, an orphan, grew up in the Polly May Home for Kids with her “look-alike” sister, Ann Marie. She’s still haunted by her twin’s mysterious death in a snowstorm, and faced with the choice of turning her unborn child over to Miss Anderson to raise, or subjecting her child to the uncertainties of her own life as a prostitute. In desperation, she also considers more dangerous solutions: a concoction of herbs, arsenic, or “alley surgeons who performed procedures in dark rooms on dirty tables.”
Across town, Marika Lailich puts the healing skills she learned from her grandmother in Montenegro to work in her new home. She wants to become a doctor, but her father, a miner slowly succumbing to consumption, has other plans for his headstrong daughter, including an arranged marriage to a union activist.
The two women intersect throughout the book, each feeling an affinity for the other, until their paths finally collide at the devastating Speculator Mine disaster. Marsenich tells an engrossing story of “dark blessings” amid the “sweet oppression of smoke residue and smelting dust.” It’s homage to the courageous denizens of Butte, the city itself and the ghosts that haunt it.
– Kristi Niemeyer