Years ago, when I first moved to Montana, I was often asked if I was from the Silver Bow County area. After some confusion, I quickly learned that there is a fairly significant population of families that are descended from Balkan immigrants of the Butte mining glory days. The tell-tale Balkan ‘-ich’ at the end of my last name prompted Montanans to inquire of my origins.
Butte is best known for its Irish population, but not surprisingly, Butte had (and has) a very diverse population of immigrants who came to partake in the early mining booms of the region. A large portion of this population came from the Balkan region of Eastern Europe: mostly the countries that once comprised Yugoslavia. Much has been written about the area, both nonfiction and fiction, often focusing on the Irish or the super-wealthy Copper Kings. “Copper Sky,” the new historical fiction novel by Milana Marsenich, explores the underbelly of the Butte mining days focusing on the characters that are often overlooked in other tales set in the area.
Butte is a richly built character, a town that conjures a multitude of images and ideas. It is abundant with history, and Marsenich brings the town of the late 1800s and early 1900s to life through the story of two women. One is a prostitute, entrenched in the life and struggling to find a safe home for her unborn child. The other, an immigrant from the Balkan region of Eastern Europe, wrestles with her family’s decision to impose an arranged marriage. Both women are strong and desire a form of independence that would allow them to pursue a life beyond the lot they were given.
Kaly Shane, a known prostitute, desires nothing more than providing a life for her unborn child that is better than her own. Marika Lailich wishes to become a doctor, a dream that arose from watching her grandmother doctor injured soldiers in the old country. The two women’s lives, though vastly different, are exceptionally parallel and are connected through both the daily events and the extraordinary ones that occur in the town. They are joined by living in this prodigious place, but they are also connected by a family secret that unbeknownst to the women, ties them together more intimately.
Marsenich has chosen a place and characters that lend an original feel to her book. Often, historical fiction tends to feel stale and repetitive. “Copper Sky” sets itself apart by exploring the lesser seen people of Butte, the Balkan immigrants and the women trying to make their way in a new world that holds close to old traditions. While focusing on the common person, “Copper Sky” is a lovely and elegantly written book. It is rich with description and energy. The reader gets a strong feel for place, people and time. At times, it does feel a bit overwritten with adjectives and description of dress and place. The description trips the reader occasionally, but is not so frequent that it completely disturbs one out of the story.
“Copper Sky” captures a part of Butte that I have not had the opportunity to connect with in literature. By focusing on lesser known figures in the mining town’s history, Marsenich has ignited in me a new interest in Butte history. It is refreshing to read a well-written piece of historical fiction based in Butte that focuses on female characters and the ‘-ichs’ of Silver Bow County’s past.