Shann Ray’s debut novel, American Copper, is almost scary good. From the delicate poetry of the opening pages wherein Evelynne Lowry’s father, Josef, enthuses about a flight of monarch butterflies to the horrible beating of two honorable Indian rodeo performers, this is a book of contrasts and extremes.
Josef builds an enormous Montana copper empire in the early twentieth century. He is both a sentimental drunk with a deep attachment to daughter and family and a sentimental drunk with a tyrannical streak that borders on the monstrous. Zion is a lonely steer wrestler and itinerant brawler from the Montana high country who was orphaned at an early age, is starved for affection, and is at a loss to express the tender feelings that churn within him. William Black Kettle is the grandson of the Cheyenne chief whose band was the victims of the Sand Creek Massacre, one of the most infamous of all the iniquities visited on Native Americans during the North American campaign to rid the country of them. Evelynne’s world, an isolated, sensitive world of poetry, becomes entwined with that of all three men. Hers is a soul as unique as her circumstances, and Shann takes us on a journey not quite like any other as we follow how she deals with the men and events that surround her.
American Copper is about the butterflies and their fragile beauty as well as about the metal that is blasted out of the rocks so violently and which creates corrupting wealth for owners and abject wretchedness for workers. It is in turn about the majesty of the men and mountains of the American west as well as about the merciless genocide that grew from the conflicts of the native people and the invaders. And it is about the accommodation that love and devotion make possible in the midst of a world that is often filled with hate and terror.
Someone somewhere once said that you might measure the quality of a work of art by the amount of reality it encompasses. By that criterion, American Copper is way up on the scale. More, Shann, more.