There will always be stories that slip through the cracks. Whether a function of human capacity, or our proclivity for comfort over truth, the bowl of experiences passed from one generation to the next is often a strained soup of hero worship and celebratory tales, the unsavory chunks of hardship and violence sifted off for trash. “People do not want to hear sad stories,” as novelist Kate Manning writes. “They want cherry pie and bromide.”
Looking through historic photographs of Colorado’s mountain towns in the early 1900s, it was those peripheral scraps that caught Manning’s eye. “What I like to do is find stories of people who aren’t in the textbooks,” she says. “I kept looking at these mining camps, [wondering], ‘Where are the women?’ And there, in the shadows, would be a skirt, or just the outline of a skirt, someone peering out of a doorway, one woman cooking in a boarding house.” Other photos had workers in sub-zero temperatures toiling for pennies; groups of small children standing neck-deep in snow; houses buried up to rafters in white. “And I’d think, ‘What? How? How did they persevere?’”
With her third novel, Gilded Mountain (published November 2022 by Simon & Schuster), Manning takes such border-bits and places them front-center, filling a gap in the Centennial State’s mining folklore with the story of 17-year-old Sylvie Pelletier, a spirited and perceptive observer whose Quebecois family arrives in 1907 alongside other immigrants to the fictionalized town of Moonstone, Colorado.
A fledgling labor movement is brewing among the overworked and underpaid marble quarrymen, who contend daily with grueling, deadly work harvesting stone to be shipped eastward for national monuments. As Sylvie’s father stirs talk about strikes and unions, the family stuffs newspaper in their cabin’s cracked walls and huddles in the same bed at night to keep warm. Sylvie soon escapes the squalor, first by taking a secretarial job at the local manor house that the mining company owners occupy when visiting town, its walls adorned in elephant leather and staff made up of formerly enslaved peoples; and then at the Moonstone Record, a newspaper helmed by a bold female publisher critical of the mining company. In both occupations, Sylvie receives a crash course on wealth inequality, resulting in mounting anger, “sharpening grief into metal” — all while she’s falling in love, teasing the temptations of luxury as much as the magnetism of revolution.
Many characters and settings in Gilded Mountain were drawn from true Colorado history, and lightly, too, from the author’s own life. The characters of Sylvie and Moonstone’s newspaper publisher, K.T. Redmond, were inspired by the editor Sylvia Smith, publisher of the Marble City Times. In 1912, Smith was run out of Marble, Colorado, for printing and speaking her mind; she suffered “very severe consequences for speaking out,” says Manning, who integrates newspaper articles throughout Gilded Mountain — several taken directly from columns penned by Smith in the early 1900s. The novel also references the Weld County town of Dearfield, along with the famous fiery organizer and orator, Mother Jones.
Set beneath the majestic (and real) Mount Sopris, Elkhorne, the manor where Sylvie works, is modeled after Redstone Castle, a still-standing mansion built in the early 20th century for John C. Osgood, founder of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company. “It really has wallpaper made out of elephant leather,” Manning says; at least that’s what the tour guide told her during a research trip. Visiting from her home in New York, a baffled Manning reached out to touch the walls herself — exactly something Sylvie would do. They both find details like that impossible to resist.
Reality often assists fiction, and sometimes the inverse is also true: Fiction can provide more approachable venues for grappling with truths — for both readers and writers. It was a photograph of Manning’s own great-grandfather among marble dealers in Colorado that sparked her initial research. Upon discovering her ancestor was a strike breaker, she wanted to probe that past and reckon with it alongside her own experience as a union member.
As she portrays characters from all walks of life, the threads of reality bind them under a modern lens. She likens fiction to acting. “It’s a kind of radical empathy — you have to imagine your way into someone else’s skin,” Manning says. “I was raised to always turn the tables [and consider] instead of only thinking one way, try to turn the mirror. See what they see.”
Throughout the novel, Sylvia’s morals form in real time: “A good girl. What was goodness? Obedience? Chastity? Listening to editors and countesses and books, I was grappling toward some other sort of goodness to claim for myself,” the protagonist reflects in the first months away from home. As her world expands from the small miner’s cabin to the greater Moonstone town, its colonial power dynamics and the national labor movement, the world chisels at her ideals — a process not unlike what the marble slabs undergo once hauled outside the Gilded Mountain quarry, whether transformed to religious statues, confederate monuments, or foundation blocks for university buildings.
Wealth disparity, immigration, human rights and freedom of expression are all forces at play in Gilded Mountain — each as familiar in the 2020s as they were in the 1910s. As they continue to intersect in today’s labor movement, Manning reminds us collective action during certain flashpoints of history have led to meaningful change in addressing this medley of injustices. Concepts like the weekend, overtime, pensions, healthcare, workplace safety and job security were all born from labor and union movements like those picked apart and put back together throughout Gilded Mountain. “Bravery is not just for the battlefields of war,” Manning writes. “Every day, ordinary people climb out of bed and carry on extraordinary, in a fight for their families, carrying sorrow, working for the betterment of us all.”
In this spirit, it’s Manning who shares her labor with us — 10 years of research and writing and editing — so we may all reap the benefits of more savory, spicy and satisfying dishes of national creation myth, including more empathy and invitations to practice turning the mirror ourselves, to see what others have seen.
ON THE BILL: Gilded Mountain reading with Kate Manning. 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 6, Boulder Book Store, 1107 Pearl St. Tickets here.