Tuesday, July 9, 2013

How to Write Entertaining History: Fire and Brimstone: The North Butte Mining Disaster of 1917 by Michael Punke

I'm heading for Montana to study mining this Saturday, courtesy of a National Endowment for the Humanities Landmarks in History program.  Every summer the NEH sends several thousand teachers to workshops and seminars at various locations throughout the U.S. and a couple of hundred overseas.

I thought going to Montana would be fun so I applied.

Which is why I have spent the last six weeks reading books and articles about mining in Montana--gold, silver and copper--its history and  its effect on the people and the land.

It's been fun.

Most of my reading has been from state historical journals and the sort of history books you find in gift shops at state parks.  Since I will check out even the smallest rack of books at the most run down gas station I enter, I've always looked over the local history books in the places I've visited, but this is not the kind of reading most of us will do after our vacation trip is done no matter how interesting the topic looked like it would be when we bought it.

So it's kind of nice to be 'forced' to read up on local history before my trip to Montana.  It's been very interesting, too.  Turns out the history of mining in Montana is fascinating.

Who knew?

One book that I can strongly recommend to everyone is Fire and Brimstone: The North Butte Mining Disaster of 1917 by Michael Punke.

Punke has found a wonderful way to make history accessible for non-history majors--do lots of research into every aspect of the event you're covering, then use the research to write a straightforward account of the event.  Leave the grander conclusions about what it all means off of the table.  Don't take the tale into overwhelming background details.  Keep the book focused on the most compelling aspects of the story; give readers just the background needed to understand events when they occur; and keep your writing as simple and clean as you can.

The result is really a thrilling read.

On June 8,  1917 a fire started in a Granite Mountain mine shaft some 2000 feet below the city of Butte--Butte itself was built on top of the copper deposits.  Over the next three days over 400 men would struggle against the fire, some to put it out, some to escape it, some to rescue their comrades.  The main focus of Fire and Brimstone's first half is Manus Duggan, a nipper* who led a large group of men to safety by convincing them to construct a bulkhead against the fire's deadly gasses and wait behind it for rescue or fresh air to arrive.  Imagine waiting in the dark, over 30 hours spent at 2400 feet below ground as the air grows thinner and thinner.

Michael Punke makes the story of Manus Duggan into a suspenseful thriller just by letting the story tell itself, with a  pause  now and then for  background on mining in Montana and life in  Butte circa 1917.  He knows that he doesn't need to do anything to make this story a good one, just get out of the way as much as any author can.  He has done the research needed to bring his story to life.  The result is a book that is very hard to put down.  I doubt there is a reader out there who won't be desperate to find out what happens to Manus Duggan.

All of which makes Fire and Brimstone something of a perfect summer read.

You won't even notice that you are learning something while you read.

*A nipper is a miner who traveled throughout the entire mine sharpening drills.  In 1917, mining drills had to be sharpened several times a day.  


Jim Randolph said...

That sounds like just the kind of thing for my wife. She loves that Into Thin Air/Perfect Storm type of thing. Actually, I do too, but I'm continuing to chip away at my TBR list of thing I already own. So it might be a little while for me.

Richard said...

Sounds like a winner, James, as does your working vacation this weekend. Duggan's story does kind of sound like a can't miss sort of thing, but I enjoyed your comments about the author staying out of the way of the story--that's probably exactly what was needed for this sort of thing! Anyway, thanks for the rec and enjoy your trip.

Teresa said...

I do love a good disaster story and tend to agree with you that they're often best when the writer just lets the story be. I doubt my library has this, but I'll look for it!