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Lee creates an entire world from elusive fragments of Sappho’s ancient verse.

Mining Town Girl
By Carol Brown
Morris Publishing (2021, 178 pp.)

The death by diphtheria of the family’s youngest son David opens this spare, plainspoken novel, set in Leadville, Colorado, 1912. Caroline, at 17, is the second youngest of four sisters, and narrates the events without emotion. There is little time to grieve, and always work to do.

“Papa worked in the hard-rock mines, and Mama ran our boarding house,” she writes stoically. The parents are Irish Catholic immigrants, from County Wicklow. The older children either help Mama with the cooking in the boarding house or work in the mines — or marry someone who works in the mines. Leadville, like other American mining towns, is on the boom-and-bust cycle, and after the silver boom of the late 19th century, the family was riding its transition to zinc. 

Caroline is a good student in English, the star of Miss White’s senior high school class, when she is derailed by meeting Bill, a mustachioed older man from an Italian family in New York. He courts her, flatters her with attention, takes her to a ball — and gets her pregnant. Although he vanishes, unsurprisingly, Caroline knows her own mind. The family — or rather, the Catholic Church — arranges for her to spend her pregnancy at a convent in Denver, safely out of sight, until the baby, Robert, can be adopted by Mama and Papa as their own.

Miss White has given her star student a journal when she has to leave high school. “You are one of my brightest students,” the teacher tells Caroline, “and I want you to continue to write. Write down your thoughts and feelings. It will help you get through the next chapter of your life.”

Seasons in Leadville resume relentlessly, and Caroline barely blinks to see automobiles on the streets rather than horse and buggy. The older brother, Sean, has graduated from college in the East with a degree in engineering and convinces the family that there are greater copper mining prospects in Bisbee, Arizona. They all pack up and go. 

An older sister, Jenny, has married an English miner, John, and once the family moves to Bisbee, in the Mule Mountains, 12 miles from the Mexican border, the couple become deeply involved in union activities. Caroline is courted by a miner friend, Bret, who is Norwegian, and it seems only a matter of time before they marry and have a child, Daisy. 

A new union, the International Workers of the World, or the IWW, muscles its way into town and there is tension growing — just as President Woodrow Wilson declares the U.S. would be entering the war in Europe. The IWW, whose head is the fiery charismatic speaker Frank Little, opposes the war, and many consider the union radical and un-American. Waves of strikes combust through the mines: Caroline’s family has moved again to Butte, Montana, to work in the booming copper mines, but the violence reaches there, too, both in terms of the devastating fire at the Granite Mountain/Spectacular mine, June 8, 1917, and the strikes that ensue, demanding labor reforms. 

Jenny’s husband has been arrested and deported to Camp Furlong, New Mexico, and union chief Frank Little lynched in Butte. His funeral procession brings out an estimated 10,000 miners, Caroline notes, and his headstone reads: “Slain by capitalist interest for organizing and inspiring his fellow men.”

Rarely does our dispassionate narrator reveal her deep emotions, though reeling from one tragedy to the next. Jenny, struck in the head by the butt of a rifle when her husband was arrested, begins having seizures and has to be hospitalized. The Spanish flu strikes Butte in the winter of 1918, killing 300 people in October alone. Bret is afflicted by “miner’s consumption,” and by the next winter Caroline is a widow. 

Author Brown, a clinical social worker and psychotherapist who lives in Taos, has evidently done much research in this period, perhaps inspired by her own family. And while the reader often feels exasperated by Caroline’s bland description, her narrative captures the character of a miner’s daughter — hard-shelled, devoted to the welfare of her family before her own desires, yet not above grasping at opportunity when she sees it. As Caroline does, ultimately: that writing journal indeed leads her to the next chapter of her life. 

Someone Else’s Earth: Poems
By Margaret Lee
Finishing Line Press (2021, 27 pp.)

Dazzlingly imaginative, these poems that “riff” on intriguing lyrical fragments left by Sappho, ca. 630-570 BCE, are also a feat of scholarly chutzpah. A Greek language and New Testament academic, author Lee is also a disciple of the Southwest landscape and a fiber artist, and in these 20 evocative poems she manages to weave all of the above. 

Imagine taking two Sappho lines, “bottom … in faint cries,” and creating this breathless meditation on “Quarantine”:

“At the bottom of isolation
The days pile up like dirty laundry.
Their edges dissolve into the expanding heap —
Time no longer marks them until
Innate rhythms peck from inside their shells.
Then, in faint cries,
They speak.”

Lee sounds these elusive fragments and worlds emerge — from Sappho’s rueful “I used to braid coronets,” the modern poet creates in “Clover Dance” a complete memory of childhood dreaming from the “shaggy grass tips/of neglected turf,” plucking clover blossoms “with delicate, little-girl fingers.”

Or how about a paean to “Hope” from one improbable word that Sappho left — celery:

“sucking water from the Earth,
Resisting life’s crunch
With string threads of resolve.”

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