"I bought a lottery ticket," writes Julie Weston at the opening of this illuminating memoir of the mining town where she grew up. "The prize? Pushing the plunger to dynamite the smokestacks rising above Kellogg, Idaho, on Memorial Day weekend in 1996."
After beginning with what seems like the end—the destruction of the smelter chimneys that towered over the town, representing the flourishing mining industry that brought Kellogg into being in the 1880s and sustained it until the 1980s—Weston describes what travelers see today when they whizz through the narrow valley hemmed in by steep mountainsides on Interstate 90: slag heaps, tailings ponds, bare mountainsides, once-flourishing neighborhoods abandoned, a downtown with vacant buildings, billboards urging tourists to stop and ride the longest gondola in the western hemisphere.
"Only a few ghostly remnants remained," Weston writes, of the industry that produced fortunes in silver, lead, and zinc from underground mines. "Who now remembered the hustle and bustle except those of us who grew up there?"
Hence this unflinching and beautifully written memoir of place, in which Weston recreates that hustle and bustle, drawing a compelling portrait of the town she knew and the people who animated it, from miners and labor agitators to lawyers, women's clubs to whorehouses. Included are her own memories and the stories of her family, including her father, a hard-drinking doctor as revered for his skilled and compassionate care at the town's only hospital as he was feared at home for his temper, along with the recollections of dozens of people she interviewed in researching the book, the complex geology of the mountains, the history of the mines and strikes, and the fortunes made and lives lost. The book brings Kellogg alive, a town that flourished for decades on the prosperity brought by humming underground mines and the smelters that processed their ores, before the market for the silver, lead, and zinc crashed and the toxic deposits from mining and smelting turned the area into the nation's second-largest Superfund site.
At the end, Weston (who left Kellogg after high school and never moved back) sorts through her ties to the town and her complex feelings of loss, even as she searches for signs of rebirth. Whether a happy ending is in store for Kellogg is not clear, but its role in the lives of those who grew up with the round-the-clock rumble of the smelter, the whistle signaling the changing of shifts, and the perpetual haze of toxic smoke is very clear. "If I don't always know who or where I am," Weston writes, "I do know where I come from: Kellogg, a small town in northern Idaho." That solid belonging allows Weston to write this poignant and affectionate memoir of place, showing clearly the gifts and perils at the heart of real people, real communities, real life.
After a career as a tax, corporate and business lawyer, Julie Whitesel Weston devoted herself to her love of playing with words in a different way—writing. Her first story was published in a local newspaper when she was just twelve; since then, her writing has been published in literary journals, popular magazines, in an anthology, and has won various short story contests and literary prizes, including nomination for a Pushcart Prize. A "word-stacker, reader, skier, flyfisher, tree-hugger, feminist, mother, wife, liberal, biter, cat cuddler, retired lawyer, friend, sister, daughter, exporer, volunteer, historian, nature lover, Idahoan, hiker... writer," Weston divides her time between Seattle and Hailey, Idaho. She is married to photographer Gerry Morrison. Visit her website.
Check out our interview with the author of The Good Times Are All Gone Now.
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