Backroom booze 

Lahey explores Butte’s moonshining past

This past St. Patrick’s Day, the Montana Department of Justice announced its intention to enforce the prohibition of alcohol sales outside of licensed establishments. Here’s the kicker: They wanted to enforce the prohibition in Butte. On St. Patrick’s Day.

I wonder how successful they were.

To say that booze is kind of a big deal in Butte—the only town in America today where open-container laws don’t apply for pedestrians—is a bit like saying the kids in my niece’s play group are sort of keen on the Easter Bunny. It’s kind of an understatement. During Butte’s heyday, any vice was welcomed, more or less, despite the city’s heyday overlapping with the Prohibition Era. Saloon-keepers offered the best (and the worst) moonshiners had to offer, and whiskey was often as viable a currency as the greenbacks that were paid for jugs and jugs of distilled alcohol. However, beyond being some miners’ best friend, what kind of role did the devil’s drink actually play in the history of the most notorious town in the American West? Who were the moonshiners, after all?

Those are questions explored by renowned Montana poet Ed Lahey in his first novel, The Thin Air Gang.

Opening on St. Patrick’s Day, 1931, the novel follows the story of Jake Lowry, the leader of a gang of moonshiners. The character is actually based on Lahey’s own father—the novel’s cover shows a black-and-white photograph of Lahey’s father operating a still. The moonshiner gang includes a pair of brothers, a 7-foot-tall Gros Ventre Indian named Mountain Pocket, a pseudo-flapper named Stella (who took Jake’s virginity years ago and was “good enough not to make much of it”) and Belle, an artist and widow (her husband died in a mining accident) for whom Jake falls.

Lahey’s first novel is an homage of sorts to Butte. “Built on the shoulders of immigrant miners,” Lahey writes, “Butte was proud of its reputation as the toughest town in the West. It was the town that bought our whiskey.” As Jake Lowry makes clear, however, it’s not just the money that keeps the gang moonshining—it’s also, at least for the men, the reprieve moonshining offers from mining: “Hell was a twelve-hour day in a hot, mile-deep stope in the Speculator Mine.” While the constant threat of being sent to prison for his trade preys upon Jake, the worser fate, it seems, would be working like a slave for one of the Copper Kings.

On the night of that St. Patty’s day, after the gang has hauled some 7,500 pounds of sugar and corn up to their hidden still, the gang is almost caught by a “butter-fat, bible-thumping” federal district chief. The gang escapes, but their still gets blown up. Not only will they have to find the money for a new still, but now they have to worry that the Feds are out to get them. When Jake gets arrested in the Red Onion saloon on trumped-up charges for starting a fight, the gang’s problems worsen. Bad for Jake, but good for the novel: Throughout Jake’s time in prison, whiskey as a currency and political machinations between cops, criminals and judges in the Butte political system are deeply explored, making for some of the most dynamic and revelatory pages in the novel. Once Jake gets out of jail, the influence moonshine has on the economic infrastructure of the town is further revealed.

While The Thin Air Gang, offers a vivid portrayal of Butte from a rarely seen perspective, the novel often seems to exist in a vacuum of the time period. Published some 70-odd years after the events it describes, it’s safe to call it a historical novel. Yet, the best historical novels sink in—not necessarily because of the vividness of their historical setting, but because of how they might resonate with the present. A River Runs Through It, which the publicity material for Lahey’s novel references for being comparatively similar, resonates because of the way the adult Norman reflects on the events of a particular time in his youth. The questions Norman asks about life and fishing have a universal expression to them. While Jake Lowry narrates the events of this novel in the past tense, his distance from this past is unknown, as is the present from which he narrates. As a result, the novel is vivid in its descriptions of moonshining, yet ultimately narrow in its scope.

In only one instance, at the novel’s end, do we get a hint of how the story may have echoed with our present time: “I think the people of the country are fed up with Hoover and the Republicans…,” says Belle. “The Depression has riled everyone. They want change.” The connection to our present time (and economy) is unmistakable, yet it comes too late and is too little explored. Lahey’s novel is a rich chronicle of an often forgotten era, but it doesn’t care to acknowledge how the fallen ghosts of Butte’s past can still reverberate for present-day readers. For that reason the ghosts in this novel don’t really haunt us, however much we might want them to.
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