by CONNIE DAUGHERTY
Copper Sky by Milana Marsenich; Open Books, 2017
“The old-time miner knows how it works: Give a man a week in Butte, and the Copper Camp will either capture his heart or send him running forever. The miner knows he doesn’t have much time…Women consider funeral and burial arrangements. They wonder about living in a town like Butte, a town now thick with smoke.”
As I read Milana Marsenich’s Copper Sky, the wind blew smoke in from the western Montana forest fires. It hung trapped in the valley hiding the Highlands, veiling the East Ridge and the abandoned head frames and busy open pit mine from my home on the flats. We became accustomed to the daily air quality reports and warnings.
Marsenich’s descriptions of the 1895 warehouse fire and of Butte in 1917 are vivid and detailed, and this summer’s skies helped take me back to when smoke in the air and danger underground were routine.
There were no warnings, just reactions and a struggle to survive.
Copper Sky is about that struggle to not only survive but thrive in the rough mining town.
Marsenich’s debut novel is set in 1917 with the country on the edge of war in Europe and the emergence of the labor movement at home. Before the year is over, Butte will experience one of the worst mining disasters in history. Marsenich skillfully and cleverly revisits this one year in history through the eyes of two young women who are also at a crossroads in their lives.
It is a time of change, and these two women are determined to find their way through it all. No two women could be more different. Kaly Shane is haunted by the past and nightmares, while Marika Lailich has dreams and aspirations for the future. When their paths cross, their lives take unexpected and intriguing turns, like the tunnels deep underground in the mines.
Kaly is an orphan who grew up at the Polly May. Life, which had always been hard for her, just got harder as she finds herself living in the redlight district with child.
Marika, an aspiring doctor and healer like her grandmother, is the much-loved daughter of a Slavic immigrant miner and union organizer. Her close family life has always been her refuge until now, when she’s faced with an unwanted arranged marriage.
While Kaly struggles to keep herself and her child safe, Marika risks everything as she steps outside the sheltered environment in which she grew up, quietly closing a door behind her.
Both women have something to prove to themselves and to those around them who think they know what is best for each of their respective futures. The two women recognize each other on the street, have exchanged polite greetings, but really have nothing in common except the determination to make a difference in their world.
“She saw Kaly sleeping peacefully in her bed. Somehow, Marika’s life had intertwined with Kaly’s. It had taken one of those unreal turns and here—in this moment—she relished the turn.”
Over the course of a few days, Kaly and Marika form a unique—almost sisterly—bond that gives them each the strength they need to face the days ahead.
Then disaster strikes. “The quick, high trill of a mine whistle sounded…Then the shrieks of several mine whistles clouded the air.” The fire in the Speculator mine would forever color Butte’s history and change the lives of everyone involved on that day. “The work didn’t stop. Doctors. Rescue squads. Helmet men. Ambulance drivers. Undertakers. Priests in black robes. Women cooking. People praying. They all worked on…black smoke plumed.” When it was over lives would be changed forever, including the lives of Marika and Kaly.
Copper Sky is a well-researched, engaging story with strong women characters who reflect so much of Butte’s personality—then and now. A definite must-read.
Milana Marsenich has published several stories and articles, including a short story in the Montana Quarterly Book, Montana, Warts and All: the Best From Our First Decade. She is a graduate of the University of Montana and of Montana State University (a Grizzly-Bobcat hybrid) and lives in Northwest Montana.