Tangled up in Butte 

Excavating stories with Heather Barbieri

Every child has a secret wish to stay in a room while the adults talk. A living room full of relatives, perhaps after a big Sunday dinner, with the night creeping up outside. For a moment the adults have forgotten the children. And for a time the children wish to remain forgotten. They hope the adults will keep talking about where they’ve been, what they’ve seen, what’s happened to them. But something watchful in the children knows this time is bound to end. Soon someone will flick on the light, and once that happens the adults will remember the children in the room and they won’t say anything more that day.

During the summers of her childhood, novelist Heather Barbieri traveled from the quiet green of Olympia, Wash., to Butte, where her father grew up. There, she would always stay in the room while her relatives told stories. In Butte, “the place where myth and reality collide,” her relatives were the first to expose her to the art of storytelling.

“It seemed to me, as a child, that a lot of people would sit together for hours telling these wonderful, colorful stories,” she says. “So you would have this dusty landscape where all this was happening, and yet the people were so colorful and the history was so colorful that it really captured my imagination.”

The family’s penchant for storytelling was handed down over generations. Compelled to leave Ireland because of famine, Barbieri’s relatives arrived in Butte without much, but they did have their stories. In one of those stories, Irish Catholic relatives told of a wake in which they just couldn’t let their dead relative lie in the coffin. The deceased had been a lively character; he would have wanted to be a part of the festivities. So rather than milling around him politely, the bereaved braced the coffin vertically against the wall. Standing up, their dead relative could better join the fun.

Though she spent most of her childhood in Olympia, Barbieri’s summers in Butte firmly established themselves in her consciousness. Before embarking upon her debut novel, Snow in July, Barbieri knew for a long time that she wanted to set a novel in Butte.

“As you get older, you’re constantly reprocessing your sense of history, and for me, I felt a tremendous sense of history just walking down Main Street,” she says. “Butte not only captivated my imagination but also felt like a part of my own history.”

Barbieri is certainly not the first author to feel the strange lure of Butte. Last year author Matt Pavelich used the city as the setting of his historical debut novel, Our Savage. To an outsider, the barren landscape of Butte, coupled with its looming and crumbling infrastructure, makes the former boomtown more of a ghost town. Everything from the mining history to the decrepit Superfund site to the Virgin Mary on the hill reeks of literary potential. Still, in her travels, Barbieri meets people who question her decision to set her novel in Butte. But she is savvy in her defense:

“You have this fascinating mix of cultures from Butte’s history as a boomtown. And even though people have left over the years, there’s still a core that survives. It’s a very uniquely American town.”

Despite her experiences in Butte and her interest in its history, Snow in July is neither autobiographical nor historical. Rather than dust off the stories of her Irish Catholic relatives, Barbieri found inspiration for the novel in, of all places, The New York Times Magazine. In a now-defunct feature called “What They were Thinking” Barbieri saw a photograph of a young woman, 20 years old or thereabouts, looking wistfully off in the distance with two children beside her. “You look at the picture and you think, ‘oh a young mother,’ but that wasn’t quite what was going on.” The young woman in the picture was not the mother of the children. Instead, she had decided to return home from college to help her parents care for the children of her drug-addicted sister. The woman in the picture spoke of her resentment of the situation and her anger but also of her strong belief that she had to be there for the children.

Snow in July echoes this story. The cover depicts a young woman with her back to the camera. Her hands, which trail off at the bottom, could be holding the hands of small children on either side of her. The story is told from the point of view of 18-year-old Erin Mulcahy, who must put her dreams of art school on hold when her older sister, addicted to drugs, alcohol and dangerous men, returns to Butte with an infant and 5-year-old daughter in tow. For better or for worse (and when is it ever for better?), Erin has always lived in her sister’s shadow. Meghan was always the prettier, smarter and more charismatic sister. When the girls’ father dies while both girls are still adolescents, Meghan’s dynamic nature begins to get her into trouble. It’s only a matter of time before that trouble spills over into Erin’s burgeoning adulthood.

In the poignant opening scene, Meghan’s 5-year-old daughter reveals, over the telephone, their whereabouts in Butte by describing what she sees outside the window:

“‘Look out the window, honey. Tell me what you see.’

There’s a clunk as [she] puts down the phone. We wait for her to pick it back up. ‘A big night light with a dancing lady on it,’ she says finally.

‘Don’t you worry . . .we’ll be right there.’ She must be at the Pair-A-Dice Hotel. It’s the only place in town with that kind of sign.”

In the midst of a summer snowstorm—and these things do happen in mile-high Butte—Erin and her widowed mother bundle up to collect what’s left of their family. From its opening pages to its final ones, Snow in July entwines setting with story. Once Barbieri had her setting and the bones of her plot set in place, she says, she began imagining how the two would work together.

“I thought it would be interesting to play off the emotional excavation of a family up against that of a literal, physical excavation. And also the idea of a family struggling to survive, up against a town that was struggling to survive as well.”

Barbieri, now with three children of her own, wonders if the storytelling tradition in her family will die away with the older generation. Snow in July, she says, was written in part to combat that fear.

“My desire to write this book stems, a little bit, from wanting to keep that tradition going, in a different way.”

And she has. What began for the author as a dual love for Butte and family stories becomes, for readers, a story that engages place and plot in new ways.

“It fascinated me,” she says, “the way you could use everything as a metaphor for a family’s existence and a family’s struggle.”

Heather Barbieri will headline the Fact & Fiction book club luncheon event Friday, Jan. 21, at 11:30 AM. Call 721-2881 for more information.


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