One morning in 1943, close to eighty men descended into the Smith coal mine in Bearcreek, Montana. Only three came out alive. “Goodbye wifes and daughters . . .” wrote two of the miners as they died. The story of that tragic day and its aftermath unfolds in this book through the eyes of those wives and daughters—women who lost their husbands, fathers, and sons, livelihoods, neighbors, and homes, yet managed to fight back and persevere.
Susan Kushner Resnick has uncovered the story behind all those losses. She chronicles the missteps and questionable ethics of the mine’s managers, who blamed their disregard for safety on the exigencies of World War II; the efforts of an earnest federal mine inspector and the mine union’s president (later a notorious murderer), who tried in vain to make the mine safer; the heroism of the men who battled for nine days to rescue the trapped miners; and the effect the disaster had on the entire mining industry. Resnick illuminates a particular historical tragedy with all its human ramifications while also reminding us that such tragedies caused by corporate greed and indifference are with us to this day.
Tidbit: The title does not contain a typo, and other reviewers have revealed why the misspelling occurs, but I believe it would be best for the reader to discovery the reason from reading the book.
I'm pleased to welcome author Susan Kushner Resnick, and though not from Montana, has written a wonderful story about a time and place in Montana history. I for one didn't know anything about this event until I read the book, Goodbye Wifes and Daughters. My review of the book will post on Saturday, so for today, please join me in welcoming Susan!
MK: You chose a fascinating piece of Montana history to write about and you’re not a Montanan – what led you to the story?
SR: My family and I were on vacation in Montana. We had planned to drive the Beartooth Highway, but it was closed due to mudslides, so we took the other way from Yellowstone to Montana, which led us past the Bearcreek cemetery and mine buildings. We ended up at the Beartooth Saloon, which is decorated with newspaper articles from the week of the disaster. I started reading one aloud and said I wanted to read the book on the disaster. Then I found out there wasn’t one. As a reporter, I couldn’t believe no one had ever written the whole story before. I felt like the story found me.
One of the miners, by the way, helped build the Beartooth Highway. The summer I found the story was the first time I was ever closed due to nature….
MK: What kind of research went into Goodbye Wifes and Daughters?
SR: As soon as I learned that no one had ever written a book on the mine disaster, I began interviewing people in the bar – while my family bet on pig racing! Those people gave me some names that helped start the process. I Googled every miner who died and tracked down as many living relatives as I could. I ended up interviewing about 80 people, most on the phone, but many in their kitchens and living rooms during two intensive trips I took back to Montana. I also got some good information from the historical archives in Helena.
MK: What fictional elements are in the story, if any?
SR: Nothing in the story is fictional, but as with all works of creative nonfiction, I use elements such as dialogue, scene-setting and detail to make the story flow as well as fiction can.
MK: What was the most touching piece of history you came across related to this incident?
SR: I don’t know if I can pick just one! There are so many poignant coincidences that people experienced. A lot of irony, too. But I guess the reaction of Bobby and his mother after the disaster is pretty sad. I can’t say more or I’ll give away too much.
MK: I borrowed an excerpt from your website…“She should have thrown salt over her shoulder. Knocked wood. Spit onto her fingertips. Anything to fight back the evil spirits. Instead, Mary Wakenshaw practically invited them into her house.” Did you come across a lot of superstition while writing the book?
SR: Not really. But it was chilling to read Mary’s declaration that she was lucky not to be married to a wartime soldier, which she wrote three weeks before losing her husband in the mine disaster.
MK: What did you enjoy most about the time you did spend in Montana? Did it bring you closer to the subjects of your book?
SR: I love Montana! I feel so privileged to have been allowed to spend so much time in your wonderful state, both while researching and while promoting the book. Walking the same streets and driving the same roads as my characters definitely brought me closer to them. The drive between Red Lodge and Bearcreek is incredibly powerful for me.
MK: Is there something, anything that you can’t do without while writing?
SR: A few months ago, I would have said Double Bubble gum, which I used to chew continually while I wrote. But I’m trying to cut down, so I’ll say caffeine and the uncomfortable kitchen stool I sit on when I write.
MK: What is your favorite non-writing pastime?
SR: Can I say sugar and caffeine again? I don’t really have hobbies, but I like to watch the Red Sox and stupid Bravo shows, but only in the summer. I don’t allow myself near Bravo during the rest of the year.
SR: I don’t think I got any, but I wish someone had told me to expect lots of big things to go wrong. Now I expect the worst (no author photo, no publicity, not enough books at a reading) and am relieved when nothing goes wrong.
MK: Is there anything else you’d like to share with your readers?
SR: To writers, I’d say: never give up if at least one person besides your parents has told you that you’re talented, no matter how long ago it was.
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University of Nebraska Press
2010 Independent Publisher Book Awards’ gold medal winner, Nonfiction West-Mountain region
2011 Montana Book Awards, honor book
2011 Western Writers of America Spur Awards, finalist, Best Contemporary Nonfiction category
2011 High Plains Book Awards, winner, Best Woman Writer category