Corpses, feral pigs, swarming moths, the reek of urine, and the “arsenic gloom of midday” represent only a handful of the distressing things Lila Sinclair encounters in 1922 Black Mountain, B.C., an imaginary company town somewhere north of Vancouver, situated atop vast coal seams where a river’s delta meets the Pacific Ocean.
Residing in the Kootenay region’s “Doukhobor country” (near Nelson), Lila previously passed her days toiling at the family orchard and inside a schoolhouse. The 29-year-old was wholly aware that to her stern, disappointed father, a lingering inability to secure a proper husband made her little more than an extra mouth to feed.
When the last will and testament of her deceased uncle offers an opportunity to take over The Black Mountain Bulletin, Lila finds herself grateful to begin an exploit far away from her father’s judgmental gaze. There’s a catch, of course. Several, in fact. Despite her enthusiasm, she has no practical knowledge of running a newspaper or a printing press; she’s never visited Black Mountain; and the bank has given her until the end of September (and not a day longer) to convert her uncle’s labour of love into a profitable enterprise.
Black Mountain turns out to be not much of a destination. It boasts Zero Avenue (so named for its giant potholes); belching smoke; metal shacks; a fur of black dust everywhere; oppressive, misty grey weather that could have served as Northrop Frye’s inspiration in coining the phrase “garrison mentality”; and enough pollution to cause birth anomalies. Author June Hutton portrays the latter-day frontier as anything but promising and idyllic.
The social geography, as envisioned by Hutton, is even worse. Corrupt, prejudiced, and trigger-happy American lawmen hired by the Black Mountain Coal Company’s profit-fixated leader stand imperiously at the apex of the rigid hierarchy. The despised prostitutes upstairs at the saloon and Chinese mine workers in nearby Lousetown, meanwhile, are relegated to the bottom.
Stifling her deflated mood, Lila persists. Her closest contacts are a handsome and knowledgeable Lousetown resident named Vincent Cruz and the real-life figure of Morris “Two-Gun” Cohen, a charming rogue drifter (or, as Lila later calls him, a “windbag of a wheedler, cheat, liar, and thief”) who agrees to become her business partner. Lila’s inaugural weeks are defined by egregious mistakes and consequential missteps as well as no small amount of earnestness and verve.
In her sophomore novel, Hutton weaves together a pair of literary traditions. First, there’s the rejigged masculine adventure story associated with old-time writers like Bret Harte and Jack London. In keeping with that genre, the highs and lows of Lila’s Black Mountain experiences are both hair-raising and page-turning. Hutton also dips her toe into a style of fictional exploration that extrapolates a fabulous unofficial history of the pre- and post-Confederation Pacific northwest. That capacious genre includes often fantastic and picaresque tales from Caroline Adderson’s “Gold Mountain,” Yasuko Thahn’s “Floating Like the Dead,” and C.P. Boyko’s “The Hunting Party” to Daphne Marlatt’s Ana Historic, George Bowering’s Burning Water, and Lee Henderson’s The Man Game.
Unlike the Newfoundland-to-Alaska voyage in Sara Tilley’s recent novel, Duke, which delights in literary experimentation in each and every paragraph, Hutton proves less keen to showcase formal playfulness, and more interested in spinning an engrossing and relatively straightforward yarn. Still, when a travelling opera company arrives in Black Mountain for a performance of Puccini’s 1910 opera La Fanciulla del West – the Tuscan composer’s febrile vision of a Californian mining camp – Hutton is not shy about riffing on its elements, from mimicking the opera’s structure to echoing aspects of its far-fetched plot.
Building a lively, satisfying narrative around a pair of footnotes in B.C.’s recorded history – Two-Gun, a man with a fairly unreliable hold on the truth, and Sun Yat-sen, who briefly visited the West Coast in 1897 – Hutton has to be commended for bringing time, place, and character so vividly to life. A few quibbles aside (the author might, for example, consider a permanent ban on her own use of the word “filthy”), she reveals herself as an artful historical storyteller. No, she’s not recounting the factual truth – she’s a novelist, after all – but her fictional take on her subject succeeds as a modern-day adventure tale that manages to be emotionally satisfying while describing one woman’s excursion to a bygone and largely forgotten heart of darkness.