Gilded Mountain is a masterpiece of historical fiction, bringing alive the very early labor movement in the United Staes even featuring a cameo appearance by Mother Jones. Sylvie Pelletier, child of French Canadien immigrants, travels with her mother and siblings from Vermont, to a company town in Colorado. Her father works for Padgett Fuel and Stone Company as a quarryman. It is 1907. Why have they traveled to this remote collection of rough cabins, eight miles up a treacherous, icy mountain road from “the prettified coal town of Ruby”, then on past the town of Moonstone, with a store, a church and a jail to Cabin 6?
Manning brings alive the grim reality of life in a company town. Workers are often paid in scrip. They receive no pay for the many hours they are required to work to keep the road clear or for any time they are expected to work beyond their shift. The work is hard and they have barely enough to pay rent and buy food. This is a marble mine with virtually no safety protocols. Moving slabs of marble is dangerous work and accidents, including deadly ones are common. There is talk of a union. Sylvie’s father is one of the people at the center of the talk, having left Vermont at gunpoint because of his labor organizing activities. His current tendency to talk up unions is unsettling to his wife and unacceptable to his employer. He could lose his job at the whim of the manager and their home along with it.
Sylvie and her older brother attend school. Their toddler brother is home with their mother. Sylvie is a talented student. She wins an essay contest with the local newspaper selecting a daring topic., The Moonstone City Record’s female editor is college educated, fiercely independent and progressive. Obviously, she, too is unacceptable to the Padgetts as she increasingly writes critical articles about their employment practices and mine safety. Miss Redmond hires Sylvie to work for her setting type. Eventually she lets Sylvie report on family news and accidents at the mine.
Because she is bilingual in French and English, Sylvie is invited to apply for a position with the mine owners’ wife as a secretary for the summer. “Duke” Padgett is obscenely wealthy, with holdings far beyond this mine.. He’s from Richmond Virginia and his wife (the “Countess”) is from Belgium, where they met in King Leopold’s Court. They summer near Moonstone, living in the lavish home they built, Elkhorn Mansion, entertaining visitors from all over. Guests are treated to balls dinners including oysters from the East and other costly delicacies. Duke’s son Jasper, attends Harvard but he is also in Moonstone for the summer. Two of Duke’s former slaves, John and Easter Grady work there as cook and driver. The Grady’s son Caleb is there for the summer and serves as a chef on the Padgetts’ private railroad car. Their other son, Marcus, is in a different part of Colorado where he hopes to participate in building a town for “Negroes.” Jasper is very close to the Gradys, as Easter took care of him when his mother died.
Sylvie experiences the harsh reality of her father’s work and the risks he takes when he encourages his fellow workers to consider fairer treatment. She sees what her mother must do in their meager surroundings to care for her family and help provide for them. She witnesses a variety of immigrant families’ adjustment to the harsh conditions of Colorado Mountain winters with no pay because the mine is shut down for the season. She is subjected to harsh comments about the newspaper and her role there. She’s spent eight weeks with a front row seat to people living at a level of luxury she could not have imagined. During that time, she connected personally with the Countess, who made something of a pet of her. She connected personally with Jasper almost as a friend. Later, Sylvie meets Mother Jones and the organizer sent by the national union. She’s there, when they speak to her father and his coworkers and she’s there for the backlash. Pinkerton men arrive, vicious and heartless. She witnesses the challenges faced by the Gradys in seeking how to make their way independently. Ultimately, all of these people interact with Sylvie in life-changing ways that make for an amazing story of the people of turn of the century Colorado.
So, this is the story of one smart, attractive and courageous girl’s life. We learn how a variety of opportunities, challenges and a range of people from different classes, countries and backgrounds shape who she is. She takes risks. She makes choices that a situationally moral but would put her in jail if she were discovered. She sometimes follows her heart and loses her way. The characters are fabulous, the story fascinating and fun, dark and sad, exciting, quiet and surprising. Definitely a could not put it down and stayed up too late several nights to read on kind of book.