Monday, January 6, 2014

Richard S. Wheeler, The Richest Hill on Earth

Review and interview

This is a novel for every reader who wanted Deadwood to go on indefinitely. In The Richest Hill on Earth, Montana writer Richard Wheeler turns his particular storytelling skills to an account of the copper mining town, Butte, at the turn of the last century. Here there are familiar names: William Andrews Clark and the other copper kings as they dig fabulous fortunes from a mountain slope near the Continental Divide. And there are the many who do the digging, as well as those scratching out a living above ground.

Besides the widow of an Irish miner and a woman with second sight, Wheeler’s novel follows an ambitious newspaperman and an enterprising mortician. There are also glancing appearances by a cop on the beat, a miner dying of consumption, a union boss, a woman on the hunt for a wealthy husband, and the residents of the red light district. Meanwhile, the bustling and rapidly growing town is a blighted, noisy, toxic environment, the often-wintry air laden with arsenic.

Butte, Montana, c1910
Plot. The stories of the novel’s several characters interweave. What lies at the center of them is a portrayal of monumental avarice that feeds the appetites of a few and leaves a host of others hungry. There are a lot of ways to take an attitude toward such extreme social disparity. You can imagine what a writer like Emile Zola or Victor Hugo would do with the material. And you would end up with Les Mis√©rables. A Dickens might give us a Bleak House.

Wheeler finds a more ironic tone. One irony is that he does not villainize the three capitalists who compete for control of this “richest hill on earth.” They are no more evil than nearly anyone else around them, just vastly cunning in their deployment of their resources, and largely unaffected by the consequences for others. Pitting three of them against each other—Clark, Marcus Daly, and Augustus Heinze, Wheeler encourages a fascination in this gladiatorial contest among titans.

Though none warrant our sympathy, they are each recognizably human in their strengths and failings, and it’s easy to take sides. They even reveal a measure of vulnerability when the truly cold-hearted Rockefeller and the Standard Oil Gang move in on Butte to take over everything at the end of the novel.

William Andrews Clark
Characters. Then there are those whose ambitions and hopes are thwarted by these giants of industry and their paid minions. Les mis√©rables they may be, but Wheeler casts them as fully human as well. Alice Brophy the miner’s widow is flinty and indomitable, discovering Socialism and defying any attempts of company goons to stop her from handing out her tracts. She takes in a dying miner and feeds both him and herself with panhandling for nickels and dimes. Equally flinty is Slanting Agnes, whose psychic gifts keep a steady flow of customers wanting to know the future, including a shift boss trying vainly to save the lives of his men.

Also interesting is Wheeler’s account of the fortunes and misfortunes of two characters whose livelihoods depend on the mining industry. John Fellowes Hall is a newspaper editor hired by Clark to make a profit center of his daily rag. Compromising his journalistic ideals to keep Clark happy, Hall eventually turns the paper into a sensationalist tabloid. Empty of integrity from the start, he blithely rationalizes every concession he makes to the will of his employer.

Augustus Heinze
Cut from similar cloth is the mortician, Royal Maxwell, always looking for a way to turn a buck out of the misfortunes of others. The deadly mines produce a steady flow of corpses, but getting more generous and reliable terms from the union, which pays for their disposal, is difficult. In desperation, Maxwell gives free funerals for dead prostitutes hoping to cover expenses by passing the hat afterwards among the still living. Ironically, this self-serving effort is gratefully appreciated by the demimonde as an act of charity.

Wrapping up. You feel at the end of Wheeler’s novel much like you once did watching the old TV series, “Naked City.” There are many thousands of stories to be told from among the lives lived in the town on the richest hill on earth. This has been just a few of them. Wheeler’s portrayal of Butte lives up to newsman Hall’s estimation of it as “the worst, cruelest, most generous, and amusing city in the United States.” And like Deadwood, the novel ends too soon. The Richest Hill on Earth is currently available in paper and ebook formats at amazon and Barnes&Noble.

Richard Wheeler

Richard Wheeler has once again generously agreed to spend some time here at BITS to talk about writing and the writing of The Richest Hill on Earth. With great pleasure I turn the rest of this page over to him.

Was The Richest Hill on Earth written in the order that finally went to print?
Pretty much. The war of the copper kings is richly documented and I wondered how to write the story. In truth, I couldn't improve upon the histories. The initial struggle for Butte's mines was between Marcus Daly and William Andrews Clark. Later, Augustus Heinze tried to steal the mines. I had to stay with that chronology. History loomed so large, and the three players loomed so large, that I was bound by actual events. Some historical novels are only loosely tied to their roots in real life, but that wasn't the case here.

There are so many ways to tell this story. How did you happen to settle on this one?
I like to confine chapters to one person's point of view, so we see events unfold through the eyes of various people, with various perceptions. I used a kept journalist to supply us with a portrait of William Andrews Clark, who was the most intelligent and gifted of the copper kings. My storytelling harkens back to Victorian fiction, in which characters were often seen through the eyes of the narrator. Think of Lord Jim, for example. By using differing narrators in the chapters, I was able to cast light on the copper kings, as seen by the people they affected.

Did you have any false starts, or had you settled on the opening of the novel when you began the first draft?
There was a false start. Initially it was to be a novel about three ruthless men wrestling for power and control and ownership. After a chapter or two, I ditched that, because the material was dull and familiar. I was unsure of what was needed. Then it struck me that the novel ought to be about the people of Butte, the ones who were impacted by the copper kings.

Then I realized that Butte itself needed to be central to the story. Butte was unique. It was all paradox, ugly, warm, desperate, joyous, dangerous, devout, and seething with ethnic tensions. So the story broadened and became much larger than the copper kings. Butte is tragic, and that is why Butte humor is so rich. Everything that happened in Butte was spun into story.

Did anything about the story or characters surprise you as you were writing?
Two of the copper kings, Daly and Clark, had a vision of life that went beyond wealth; that is to say, some admirable qualities. Daly wished to create a New Ireland, a refuge for his people, and in a way, succeeded. Clark was actually a brilliant and fairly honorable businessman and banker, but his virtues were trumped by vanity and his willingness to buy legislatures to become a senator. I found nothing redeeming in Heinze, and years later the Rockefellers demolished him.

Did writing about Clark, Heinze, and Daly change your opinion of them?
I came to admire Daly, the humble immigrant boy who never lost touch with the hungry, the poor, the desperate. He was as tough a fighter and entrepreneur as ever lived, and yet managed to lift vast numbers into a better life. He loved horses, and had the best racing stable of his times. He lived his entire life in a modest home, surrounded by his quiet, loving family. In my story, he helps a widow, attends a wake, and somehow grows into the sort of man I had come to believe he was.

There is a darkly comic undertone in the novel. How much of that is intentional?
It was all intentional. Butte's signature is dark humor. The city turns its grief and malice and ethnic strife into wry humor. When you expect to die of silicosis, miner's lung, in your forties, you enjoy life while you can, in the saloons, in the wakes, and in storytelling. If there was any quality that marked a denizen of Butte, it was his ability to spin a yarn, usually comic or absurd. The city had a vast tolerance for eccentrics, and delighted in them. The nicknames Butte gave to its people are legendary. Nickel Annie, Lutey the Box Thief, Lilly the Lush, Liz the Lady, Little Stevie, Paddy the Ghoul, Noodles Fagan. These and a thousand others were all real people.

What do you remember pleasing you most about writing the novel?
Butte is elusive. It simply delighted me when Butte people told me I had nailed it.

What turned out to be the biggest challenge for you in the writing?
There are wildly conflicting narratives of the copper wars, and I went nuts trying to sort out what happened. Thank heaven, I had shifted the focus to the people of Butte, because I suspect I would have shelved the story because of intractable differences.

Were you ready to wrap up the novel at 346 pp., or did any part of you want to keep on going?
I ended the story on the cusp of a great transition. The next phase was labor radicalism, unionization, brutal suppression by Anaconda and the Pinkerton agency (one of whose employees was Dashiell Hammett). The murder of Industrial Workers of the World organizer Frank Little is one of the most wrenching dramas in American history. I itched to keep on rolling. The best drama was yet to come. But I had promised a novelist friend, who had drawn a circle around that period, not to invade her turf. The very last sentences in my novel foretell what's coming.

How readily did an appropriate ending present itself to you?
The fight of three men to possess the greatest prize opened the door to what followed. Other, humbler, people wanted a piece of the prize too. One of the looming changes was the advent of socialism. Red Alice is there on the last page, with her sign, Capitalism is Theft.

How did you go about deciding on the novel’s title?
Early on, Butte was calling itself the richest hill on earth. That hill was the prize. The most fabulous prize in the world. It seemed ideal to use that prize as the title, a way of setting up the drama on its pages.

In editing the book, were there any “outtakes” that didn’t make it to the final version?
Only the initial pages, which got pitched.

Looking back, do you feel any differently about the novel now?
I have the sense that I didn't quite capture either the very rich or the very poor. I grew up in a sheltered 1940s middle class home, the son of a patent lawyer of modest means, and somehow that limits me in depicting the working stiffs, and immigrants, and the reckless rich of that time. My imagination didn't suffice. So, yes, there is some disappointment.

What has been the reaction of readers to the novel?
Oddly, I don't know. I have heard or read almost nothing from them. The Amazon ratings are pretty good.

How has the novel been received in Montana?
Oddly, well received in some places, including Butte, but ignored elsewhere. In the state's literary center, Missoula, where "literary" fiction reigns, it never saw daylight. I did a reading and signing there, superbly advertised, and only three people showed up, all elderly people from Butte.

What are you reading now?
I've just started You Are My Sunshine, by Stanley Gordon West.

What can your readers expect from you next?
I'm doing my final historical novel, The Beausoleil Brothers Follies, which follows an early vaudeville troupe through the mining towns of Montana and the Northwest.

Anything we didn’t cover you’d like to comment on?
I'm honored by your interest in my stories, and am an admirer of your fine reviews that get to the heart of the books and films you examine. Thanks so much for all of that.

Thanks, Richard. Every success.

Further reading: 
BITS reviews of other fiction by Richard Wheeler

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Overlooked TV, Zen 


  1. I've been meaning to pick this one up for some time. That period of Butte history is fascinating to me, what little I even know of. Thanks for the reminder, Ron.

  2. Good stuff Ron. I mentioned Wheeler in my post today. I am presently reading his," Accidental Novelist-A Literary Memoir," it also, is terrific. I very much enjoyed this post and interview.

    1. I have been meaning to read this one. Thanks for the reminder.

  3. Good review. I enjoyed The Richest Hill on Earth. This is a thoroughly researched novel and will be of interest to anyone interested in mining, Butte, early Montana politics, or class struggles in the days of Robber Barons.

  4. Ron, thank for you the review and a most engaging interview with Mr. Wheeler. One wonders how different the American frontier, and even its history, would have been without its mining towns and camps.

  5. Enjoyed this review and interview. I'll read it, too.