22. In the Dark + Book Out Soon
Before I get to this month’s newsletter, I have two updates!
I can’t believe this is finally happening: When the Moon Turns to Blood comes out next month, on June 21. I have been living with this story for so long in my head, and I can’t wait for you to read it. Please pre-order it from the bookstore of your choice.
I’ve been planning a few bookstore events, and intend to plan even more. But for now, please mark your calendars for the following readings and events:
Tuesday, June 21 at 7 pm at Powell’s City of Books: When the Moon Turns to Blood book release + In Conversation with Ryan Haas of Oregon Public Broadcasting
Wednesday, July 6 at 7 pm at Montvale Events Center: Northwest Passages Book Club event, hosted by the Spokesman-Review (Please note this is a ticketed event)
Thursday, July 7 at 7 pm, reading at Fact & Fiction Books
Friday, July 8 at 3 pm, reading at Isle of Books
Please feel free to email me or comment below if there’s a bookstore in your city that you’d like me to try to arrange an event with, and I will try to make it happen.
This month’s newsletter touches on something I’ve written about a lot before: cemeteries, and my love for them. In fact, I wrote a whole essay in 2020 for Wildsam about graveyards… and feminism… and Supreme Court Justices.
It feels so relevant to republish it again this week given… the news. So I’m offering that essay, called “Hearts of Marble,” for paid subscribers. Here’s a snippet — you’ll have to subscribe to read the rest:
I fell in love with graveyards on the last day of hearings for a new Supreme Court justice. You probably remember the one I mean: a red-nosed man, spitting and clawing while a woman with righteous testimony about the nominee held back tears behind smudged glasses, eyes flickering with fear. It was just one of many moments in that time and years around it when TV’s yellow sunbeams crowded out everything, grasping for my attention. But it was a notable one.
Out here in Portland, the hearings took place on bright blue late summer days–rare ones no person should waste on politics, when the city seems to be lit by subterranean lights that make every blade of grass a little greener. I was renting a house on the outskirts of the metro area then, at the place where the suburbs dwindle to farmlands that rise and fall like a chest until the earth finally inhales and the land swells into a mountain range. It’s almost as far from man’s power centers–in Washington, D.C., Wall Street–as you can get without tripping into the ocean.
I like to think we know power out here, too: a more ancient kind that blows o f the Coast Range and the Cascades, that fills our lungs each morning and reminds us that we people will never understand time like a mountain range. Like an ocean. Like a fault line.
Watching the hearings, it felt as though I had swallowed an egg whole. With every insult lobbed at a female senator, it felt as if that egg cracked a little and, eventually, tiny snakes were wriggling out from its shell. The longer I watched, the tighter those snakes wrapped themselves around my heart, my lungs, my will, squeezing a little tighter every time I exhaled.
I slammed my laptop closed, grabbed my keys and sped toward the arched gate and gravel drive of the Hillsboro Pioneer Cemetery. I’d been meaning to come here to find someone.
I spent a chunk of April holed up in a Butte, Montana miner’s cabin built in 1891. I was lucky to be the April 2022 resident in the Dear Butte program — an amazing little artist residency in my favorite western city, where all the organizers ask is that you keep to yourself and use the quiet to your advantage.
In proper Montana fashion, the predicted spring temperatures plummeted somewhat unexpectedly to -3 degrees, and it snowed sideways most of the time I was there. If I learned anything during my 2019 stint living in Montana, it’s that the weather does what it pleases and you’re only wasting good air if you complain about it. Being that it was so cold, it really allowed me to convene with the quiet in a way that — I think, I hope — will be beneficial to my writing. I spent most of the time pacing around the house in some old man slippers I bought at WalMart, stuffing handfuls of Haribo Twin Snakes and cups of coffee in my face, and, when inspiration struck, hammering away at my laptop on what I think is one of my best ideas.
One of my few ventures out into the cold was to visit the memorial dedicated to the 168 miners who perished in the June 1917 Granite Mountain Mine disaster. There was a fire, and all those men suffocated underground, down in the massive honeycomb of tunnels that runs underneath Butte. It was the deadliest underground mining disaster in American history. A sign at the memorial reminds visitors, though, that from 1870 to 1983, 2,500 miners have lost their lives mining in Butte — and so this is hallowed ground. And it feels like that: too quiet. Solemn.
I stood there alone in the cold, bits of ice pelting me in the cheeks, thinking about the placement of this remembrance right near the edge of the Berkeley Pit, and how that pit of toxic waste is a memorial, too, of the things greed and money have done, and will do, to kill this planet.
Back in June 1917, the miners down there knew that they were going to die. They rapped on air pipes in shifts, hoping rescuers above would hear them knocking and pull them out. Some men wrote last words of love to their wives and children — so close, and yet so far out of reach, up there in the light.
The letters J.D. Moore, a shift boss who died in the disaster, wrote to his wife are printed on signs at the memorial. The first was a letter of love. The second was a plea that she deliver a message: “There is a young fellow down here, Clarence Marthey. He has a wife and two kiddies. Tell her we done the best we could, but the cards were stacked against us.”
He wrote a third two hours later: “All alive but air getting bad,” Moore wrote. “One small piece of candle left. Think it is all off.”
Moore’s final note was on the cover of a book: “In the dark,” he wrote.
And that was it.
I thought a lot about this during my stay: that not far from where I was doing my job — writing — 168 people had died doing their job mining. In the days that followed the disaster, miners in Butte walked off the job demanding their corporate overlords provide safer working conditions, higher wages and acknowledge that each man had a right to speak his mind without consequence. These were the days of the rustling card system: when miners were issued a work permit by the mining companies — one that could be revoked at any whiff of union organizing.
In July 1917, the anti-World War I protester and International Workers of the World leader Frank Little came to town, throwing his weight behind the Butte miners in their fight. Little was loud, but labor historian Erik Loomis writes that his efforts to rally miners weren’t really all that successful. Even so, his presence certainly drew attention and drummed up fears of how he might stir up the locals. The mining companies “reprinted his anti-war speeches and accused him of promoting revolutionary and pro-German beliefs in the middle of an industry necessary for wartime production. Spies reported Little calling for revolution during union meetings,” Loomis writes. “…Given Little’s fervor, it’s possible.”
On the night of August 1 — not even two months after the Granite Mine disaster — six masked men came for Little. The story of what happened that night has been told and re-told (listen to Death in the West, Season 1, please), but it goes like this: those masked men broke into the boarding house where Little was sleeping that night, dragged him outside, tied him to the bumper of their car, dragged him across town, and finally, hanged him from a railroad trestle. Vigilantes made sure Frank Little’s revolution stopped right there.
Black and white photographs of the funeral are stunning: three thousand people marched through the streets of Butte in Little’s funeral procession, following his casket to its resting place in Mountain View Cemetery. The line of people went on and on and on. Everyone in Butte had to have been there.
It felt right that I visit Frank Little’s grave. I went with the journalist Kathleen McLaughlin: a freelancer who lives in Butte, and also covers the West. Before we went, we stopped by an unassuming piece of public art in Uptown that I’d passed by before, but hadn’t given a second look. Three black silhouettes carved out of metal: two men carrying another man. It’s art of Little being carried away by his killers. The foreboding piece stands on the edge of a parking lot now, at the place where Little’s boarding house stood back then. We had a laugh how dark the public art is in Butte.
Kathleen drove me over to the cemetery, and on the way we chattered about the never-ending struggle to make freelance journalism work. It’s rare to meet someone living in the same way I do, and was sadly a little comforting to know I’m not alone. In a way, it felt right that we would go see Frank Little together.
It was a day when everything was white: the sky, the ground, the air thick with that certain kind of Montana cold. Little’s grave was covered in frost, but the message of his headstone was clear and loud regardless: “SLAIN BY CAPITALIST INTERESTS FOR ORGANIZING AND INSPIRING HIS FELLOW MAN,” it reads. People come here and leave little tokens: a bottle of Jack Daniels, a tall can swelling in the icy cold, a handful of bullets, flowers, well-worn work gloves.
That night, after Kathleen dropped me back off at the Dear Butte house, I couldn’t stop thinking about how relevant Little’s story is right now, how prescient the message of his death; how anyone who isn’t making a six figure salary is being slain by capitalist interests little by little everyday; how we know this, and we can’t afford to stop; how corporations run this country, and always have. I was thinking about how there is no savings for me if I get sick, or need a break. How I have to just keep going, keep digging, keep writing, keep mining in my own way in hopes of something… though I’ve lost sight, really, of who or what all this digging is for.
One night, I sat up late writing about those miners in 1917, who sat down underneath the world’s feet, knowing they had nothing more to do than die. The story is so haunting and instructive.
The last thing J.D. Moore wrote was after the last light had gone. He felt around in the black for something to cling to, found a book and his pen moved across it in darkness. His last act was to write. To say that he was alive in the dark. He didn’t know that the miners of Butte would strike after he died, that Frank Little would come to town and would be killed for sticking up for the lives of regular people, who didn’t want their work to claim their lives, or take them.
What Moore knew in that moment was that the cards had been stacked against him from the start.
I wrote into the night about the ways, lately, I’ve felt the cards were stacked against me. The times I’ve had to show my belly, roll over, play dead in a situation I didn’t understand. The times I’ve become aware that being a confident female writer scares people, and how people will do anything to put a writer like me in my place. I am starting to recognize the ways the cards are stacked, and instead of trying to knock them over, I am trying to simply navigate between them.
I wrote about how words live in dark corners and moments. How words don’t need light. They are, themselves, light. Light from within. Flames that burn so white hot, they don’t even go out when we go out.