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Fiction mirrors real life union struggles in Gilded Mountain

Mike Matejka
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“The paradise of the rich is built from the hell of the poor,” counsels famed labor organizer Mary “Mother” Jones to aspiring journalist Sylvie Pelletier in the Rocky Mountain mining camp novel Gilded Mountain, by Kate Manning.

Is it fame and fortune for Sylvie with a besotted rich man’s son or the tough row of union organizing?  Manning effectively plays out a young woman’s dire choices as luxury tempts her  while living the hard scrabble life that a miner’s daughter faces.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw workers barely subsisting, unions crushed and great wealth ostentatiously celebrating.

Sylvie Pelletier and her family move westward to a fictional Colorado marble mining company town.  With her French Canadian parents, the family fled after a failed Vermont quarry union organizing drive.  Perched in a mountain pass cabin, the family barely survives while her father Jacques cuts marble for the wealthy Padgett family, whose Elkhorne mansion stands in stark contrast to the workers’ ramshackle existence.

Because she speaks French, wealthy matron Inge Padgett hires Sylvie as her summer secretary.  While her hard-nosed husband Duke accumulates wealth, Inge elaborates worker upliftment schemes and tours the mine camp, passing chocolates to barely clad and fed children.  Duke’s son Jasper flirts with young Sylvie, who dreams that wealth’s door might open.  In the mansion’s bowels she befriends the African American Grady family.  The Padgett family were Confederate slave holders and deep secrets slowly emerge amongst the elegant meals Easter Grady prepares.

Contrasting mansion life is Sylvia’s second job, a printer’s apprentices with hard-bitten, sarcastic, whiskey-drinking Katherine Redmond, whose Moonstone City Record constantly pricks the Padgett family and the marble quarry, reporting worker deaths, injuries and misery.

So which path does Sylvie choose, or does she even have a choice?   Wealthy and alcoholic Jasper Padgett erratically pursues her.  Union organizer George Lonahan catches her eye as she pines for romance.  Will it be a gilded luxury cage for Sylvie or standing with her family and principles, joining the union struggle? 

Author Manning dug into labor and mining history to create a full story.  The miners’ dangerous work and union organizing reflects what working people endured alongside the wealth they produced for the Rockefellers, Goulds, Vanderbilts and fictional Padgetts.  She researched Marble, Colorado, founded in 1899, whose stone graces the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington Cemetery’s Tomb of the Unknowns.  The Marble City Times and its female publisher, Sylvia T. Smith, inspired the Moonstone City Record.  Colorado’s mine wars, the vicious Pinkerton hired guns and valiant union efforts all form background for the miners’ struggles in fictional Moonstone.

This is an American story; majestic mountains, struggling workers, racial undercurrents and fabulous wealth extracted from the workers’ hands and the land’s bounty.  Author Manning blends history well with enticing fiction, well worth a read to see what life paths Sylvie Pelletier follows.

Gilded Mountain

By Kate Manning

Scribner Books, 2022