Local writer Patrick Lee’s latest novel, “Canyon Secret,” takes place in 1952 amid two of the most pivotal and tumultuous events in Montana’s history: the construction of the Hungry Horse Dam, and Butte as the labor movement pitted its workers against the industrial barons who controlled the city and so much of the state.
In choosing these backdrops for his mystery, Lee is able to delve deeply into what life was like in Coram, Martin City, Hungry Horse, Polebridge and other Flathead communities at the mid-point of the 20th century, while the Butte scenes depict fabled neighborhoods that now exist only in the memories of its elders: Meaderville, East Butte and McQueen, since swallowed up by the Berkley Pit.
There are also, of course, characters in “Canyon Secret,” but while the story is fiction, many of its characters are based upon the 35 people Lee interviewed over several years before he began writing.
“The most fun part, for me, was interviewing the people that actually worked on the dam,” Lee said. “I was able to talk to those guys and I made them actual characters in the book,” – though he changed their names.
Lee taught special education and worked as an administrator for Kalispell’s School District 5 for 30 years. A native of Butte, Lee’s interest in the still unsolved arson cases that plagued Butte through the 1970s turned into his first novel, “The Fire Season.”
He begins crafting his stories with an idea of the historical event around which he intends to hang the plot, and his research eventually elucidates the characters within the book. While Lee conducts enough interviews and research to write a book of pure history, writing fiction allows him to tell a better story, and take certain liberties like distilling the anecdotes of several Montanans interviewed into one character.
“I’ve tried to write some nonfiction and I just can’t tell the truth,” he said.
While the book begins with the fierce Butte labor strike of 1952, that strike never happened. Instead, Lee pulled details from the labor strikes of 1946, 1959 and 1967, having interviewed six men who took part in the 1959 strike.
“It was a real ugly and horrible strike,” Lee said. “They talked about the effect of the strike on the laborers and their families.”
The unrest in Butte forces the main character, Mik Anzich, and his son northwest to Hungry Horse to find work on the dam as it nears completion. There, the plot unfolds as Mik becomes entangled in the crimes of his gambling, con man son-in-law. Through these and other characters, Lee describes the radical changes tiny canyon communities underwent as the massive government project of the dam construction drew workers – as well as those with darker inclinations – from all over the country to Montana.
The quiet towns of the canyon exploded with bars, brothels and bunkhouses in ways that seem impossible today. Martin City alone had 13 bars, and the madam of the main brothel there, based on a real woman, plays a prominent role in the novel. And the women he interviewed helped Lee depict the cultural and social changes the canyon underwent.
For “Canyon Secret,” Lee dug through the archives of the Hungry Horse News, which covered the dam construction and the visit by President Harry Truman upon its completion, and managed to interview carpenters, ironworkers, geologists and others who worked on the dam. He even found the Columbia Falls man who won an essay contest as a child that allowed him to accompany the legendary newspaperman and founder of the Hungry Horse News, Mel Ruder, when he covered Truman’s visit to the area to ceremonially flip the switch to activate the dam.
Lee has gotten good feedback on the book so far, especially from the old timers of Butte and the canyon he interviewed who enjoyed the picture he painted of that era.
“There’s just some real characters,” Lee said. “But those characters were based on real people that were here, and I think they liked seeing that.”
The only complaints he’s received were from some readers who objected to some of the novel’s more raw elements, though Lee believes he was simply hewing to reality of life at that time: “I think these guys swore and had sex,” he said.
Though he is enjoying the publication of his second novel, Lee already has plans for his third, hanging it around the stock scandal and collapse of the Montana Power Company in the late 1990s.
“There’s a good story in there and no one’s done anything on it,” he added. “That’ll be fun – just to find out what happened will be a big project for me.”
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