Above: Carla Kelly, volunteers at the Western Mining and Railroad Museum in Helper. Inset: Deborah Balzotti was asked to write the history of Winter Quarters Canyon for an elementary school age group.
"When we moved to Carbon County in 2009, I knew right away that I would eventually write a book about the Scofield Mine Disaster," says Carla Kelly, award-winning novelist who lives in Wellington. My Loving Vigil Keeping, a teacher's account of life in Scofield's Winter Quarters Canyon, has been entertaining readers since its publication in August by Bonneville Books, an imprint of Cedar Fort, Inc.
Kelly's novel, plus journalist Deborah Balzotti's non-fiction work, Utah Ghost Towns: Uncovering Winter Quarters, will be featured Dec. 15, at a joint booksigning at the Western Mining and Railroad Museum in Helper, from noon to 3 p.m. Everyone is invited.
Both authors will be at the museum to sign copies of their books, and answer any questions about them, according to Stephanie Fitzsimons, museum director. "We know it's unusual for a work of fiction to be included in a museum bookstore, but Carla's book is a remarkable blending of fact and fiction," Fitzsimons explained. "That mine disaster is a subject that still evokes strong emotions here. What better place to feature it?"
Balzotti's work is equally compelling, according to Fitzsimons. Utah Ghost Towns was commissioned by Canyon Environmenal, on behalf of Canyon Fuel Company - Skyline Mine. Written for an elementary school audience, a copy of the work has been placed in all elementary schools in Utah.
"The purpose of the project was to fulfill a requirement of the National Historic Preservation Act, that involved Skyline Mine," Balzotti said. Balzotti is a well-known journalist in Utah Valley who lives in Springville and serves as a correspondent for the Provo's Daily Herald now. She wrote the popular "BookLook" book review column for the former Springville Herald.
"When I was approached to write a book about Winter Quarters, Utah, I had never heard about it," Balzotti said. "My first research stop was the Western Mining and Railroad Museum. As I read diary excerpts and saw photos, I knew it was a story that had to be shared with the next generation." Because Skyline Mine was installing additional support facilities in Winter Quarters Canyon, such a project was required by law, since Winter Quarters has been identified as a historic town site and eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. It is also a Utah Cultural Resources Site.
The publication of Utah Ghost Towns was mandated to fulfill any obligations that Skyline Mine was under, working in and near such a historic spot, notorious for the May 1, 1900 mine explosion that killed 200 men and boys. The Scofield [Winter Quarters] Mine Disaster remains Utah's worst catastrophe of any kind.
Kelly's novel is another way of examining this event that shattered many lives in and around Scofield, the town directly adjacent to Winter Quarters Canyon, and now a popular summer retreat.
"I suppose I am drawn to big events," Kelly said. "I have an international audience for my novels relating to the Napoleonic Wars. My first novel, published in 1984, dealt with the Pueblo Indian uprising in Santa Fe in 1680. I find it a writing challenge to examine characters and how they deal with crises."
My Loving Vigil Keeping is one example of this effort. The challenge was to actually write a story unrelated to the mine disaster, which happens at the end of the novel. "I had to write 'Vigil Keeping' from the viewpoint of people who have no idea what is going to happen on May 1, and how their lives will change in an instant," she said. "To do it any other way would lessen the impact of the actual event. It had to be a novel about living and working in a coal camp." Kelly never takes writing for granted. Each novel is distinct, and has its own challenges. "The mine disaster was a true exercise in writing," she said. "Even though I have written 26 novels, this required a subtle touch - how much to reveal, whose point of view to use. I wanted to get it right, because it matters to me."
My Loving Vigil Keeping is a fictional glimpse of the mining culture that settled in Scofield and Winter Quarters at the end of the nineteenth century, observed from the point of view of a young teacher who works in the canyon's school. Hours of research went into the book, including visits to the LDS Church History Library in Salt Lake City, a careful study of many accounts of mining life, the disaster itself, and the various nations the miners represented.
She focused mainly on the British Isles miners - the Welsh, in particular, but also the English, Scots and Cornish - and the many miners from Finland who worked in the Number One and Number Four mines in Winter Quarters Canyon. "The Welsh were especially skilled miners," Kelly explained. "Many of them joined the Mormon Church in South Wales and immigrated to Utah. They had mined in Wales, and they mined here. Their descendants still mine in Carbon and Emery counties."
Reaction to My Loving Vigil Keeping has been immediate and gratifying. "Some people, many of them miners or descendants of miners, have told me how grateful they are that someone has put words to hard-working, often-overlooked lives." Kelly is also finding herself in demand to speak at book clubs - which she enjoys - because she can answer questions about the characters and the research. "Usually, readers want to know what is next for Della and Owen, the main characters. I may have to write a sequel, because I know what happens!"
Currently, My Loving Vigil Keeping is being recorded as an audio book. Sources at Cedar Fort have said that it has been turned over to a screenwriter, for a possible motion picture. "I'll believe that when I see it," Kelly says, ever the skeptic.
Rick, this might a good cut off point, if space is an issue
Kelly's books have been translated into at least 11 languages, and her readership is international. She is well-known for impeccable historical research, which takes time and a detective's skill to tease out little facts. "For me, research is the best part of writing," she admits. "I'm a historian by education and training. Novel writing just sort of happened."
It "sort of happened" in the mid-1970s, when the Kellys lived in Torrington, Wyoming, where Kelly's husband, Martin, taught at Eastern Wyoming College. Torrington is close to Fort Laramie National Historic Site, where Kelly worked as a seasonal ranger/historian.
"My first successes in fiction writing came from short stories that I based at Fort Laramie, and other Indian Wars Forts," she said. Eventually, these published stories were collected into one book, Here's to the Ladies: Stories of the Frontier Army, published by Texas Christian University Press.
After her novel about the Santa Fe Pueblo Indian uprising was published in 1984, Kelly's agent suggested that she write Regency Romances, those novels set during the "Pride and Prejudice" era of English history. She did, and began a writing career with Signet, now a division of Penguin Random House. Two of her Signet Regencies were awarded Rita Awards from Romance Writers of America for Best Regency of the Year. Along the way, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from Romantic Times.
When the Kellys moved to Wellington after Martin retired from Valley City State University in North Dakota, Carla decided to finish a novel with a Mormon-related theme that she had been working on for several years. She finished Borrowed Light, which was published by Cedar Fort, Inc. This past May, Borrowed Light won a Whitney Award from LDStorymakers for Best LDS Romance of the Year. My Loving Vigil Keeping has already been nominated for a Whitney in next year's competition, this time in the Historical Fiction category.
Currently, Kelly writes for three publishers: Cedar Fort, Harlequin (based in Great Britain), and Camel Press, a small press in Seattle, Wash. "I've written almost four books this year," she said. "That's a bit much, but I have a hard time saying no to publishers."
One of her greatest pleasures in writing about coal mining? "The postmaster in Wellington told me some of her experiences growing up in a coal camp, that paralleled the characters in my novel," Kelly said. "She told me, 'You got it right.' That's all I wanted to do."