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Review: Gilded Mountain, by Kate Manning
Scribner, 2022. 445 pp. $28

In April 1907, Sylvie Pelletier’s Québecois family uproots from Rutland, Vermont, to join her father in Moonstone, Colorado, where he works as a marble quarryman. Sylvie, just short of her seventeenth birthday, has trouble speaking up for herself, perhaps suggestive of her mixed legacy. Her father’s vigor and zest for life have encouraged romantic dreams and a wish to be daring, whereas her mother’s always telling her what girls can’t do and reminding her to pray her rosary.

Right away, you understand Sylvie’s yearning and fanciful notions:

Even as they melted, the stars of snow in my hand provoked my secret longing, impacted like a boil behind the sternum. A red, unspeakable greed. For what? To have, to keep it. The crystal beauty and the oxygen, ferny diadems of lace in the air.

Home will stifle her; rescue comes from a job offer from Katrina Redmond, newspaper editor and publisher, a true-blue friend to unions and the working person. More important, K.T., as she’s known, tries to teach her young charge to answer questions, steer clear of the wrong men, and stick up for her principles. And since Moonstone belongs to the Padgett Fuel and Stone Company, speaking one’s mind can be dangerous.

Padgett withholds wages in lieu of scrip, good only at the company store, which charges extortionate prices. Clearing snow from the tracks so that stone may travel to market is unpaid labor. The company charges high rents for workers’ shacks that don’t keep out the wind, yet step out of line, and you’ll be evicted, owing money you can’t pay. Shifts run twelve or fourteen hours, fifteen minutes off for lunch or dinner—go a minute over, and you’ll be docked.

Mary Harris (Mother) Jones, union organizer, as she appeared between 1910 and 1915 (courtesy Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Sylvie needs no education in these practices, only in how the company gets away with them, and how to take notes. So when Inge, alleged Belgian countess and mistress of the Padgett manse, hires Sylvie as a private secretary because she types well and speaks French, K.T. isn’t that upset. The newspaper publisher figures she’ll have a source within the seat of plutocracy.

I admire Gilded Mountain for the prose, the themes, and the narrative about Padgett as an exploitive corporation, unchecked by law or common decency. The story about the fight for a decent wage never goes out of style. However, a lot gets in the way, in part because of a kitchen-sink approach to corporate abuses, which feels over the top—and is needless, given the novel’s strengths. And despite all that, there’s something missing, oddly enough.

The kitchen-sink problem includes two romantic plot lines when one would have done just fine. Jasper (Jace) Padgett, ne’er-do-well company scion, is drinking his way through college, where he dabbles with great thoughts, and apparently returns to Moonstone so he can break promises. I’d have thought Sylvie would reject him after the second or third meeting, if not sooner, particularly when she has interest from George Lonahan, itinerant union organizer, who’s easier to talk to, more reliable, and sees her more clearly than Jace does.

Even less explicable, Sylvie swallows the company line that the reports Inge writes about the workers’ living conditions will lead to improvements. I don’t see how. Sylvie knows the squalor in which the quarry families live, and she also knows that it persists despite previous reports.

Consequently, I can’t help thinking that Sylvie must appear hopelessly naïve on one side but a perceptive observer on the other so that our heroine—and the reader—may be instructed, grain by grain, in just how despicable the company is. It’s as if Padgett’s cold-blooded practices, vividly described and embodied by its loathsome foreman, don’t get the message across.

Furthermore, I hear an authorial voice behind Sylvie’s sometimes tendentious statements about the moral, political, and economic problems she sees, and in portents like “These were the laughable dreams from which I was soon to be waked.” Manning’s narrative needs no gloss, and her storytelling requires no devices to pique the reader’s interest.

Another excess is King Leopold II of Belgium’s visit to the manse. I don’t mind fictional uses of real historical figures, so long as they serve a genuine purpose; I loved the scenes with Mother Jones, the self-avowed hell-raising union advocate. But Leopold seems dragged in to evoke his infamous plunder of the Congo, which has nothing to do with the main story, and to tempt Sylvie to sleep with him and make her fortune. That’s the stuff of melodrama, which unfortunately taints other aspects of the novel.

What’s missing in all this is an authentic villain, one whose character is fleshed out enough so that he’s not merely a mouthpiece for villainy. But that doesn’t happen in Gilded Mountain. While I read the book, I hissed the bad guys and cheered for the heroines and heroes, but once I closed the cover, I got to wondering whether I’d been entertained or lectured.

Gilded Mountain has fine elements, but I wish Manning had backed off enough to let them work better.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.