Willoughby: Historical fiction, and fictional history | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: Historical fiction, and fictional history

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
Yule Marble Quarry in 1911, setting and approximate time for the fictional book "Gilded Mountain."
Aspen Historical Society/Courtesy photo

Passing through a bookstore, I spotted a book in the featured new-fiction section that had cover artwork showing Maroon Bells. Titled “Gilded Mountain” and written by Kate Manning, the story begins in 1907 with the setting in Moonstone, the fictional name for what we think of as Redstone.

I couldn’t resist and have enjoyed it. There are scenes in a marble quarry and what we would think of as Redstone Castle. The enticer on the book cover says, “drawn from true stories of Colorado history … a tale of a bygone American West seized by robber barons and settled by immigrants.”

As you might surmise, I am a fan of historical fiction. A major reason is that non-fiction history is often on the dry side and does not give you as much of a sense of a time and place as fiction delivers.

Places like Paris, London, and New York are frequently locations in historical-fiction books. It makes sense because readers can be quite familiar with the locations mentioned, and therefore, fewer words are necessary to describe scenes. Aspen doesn’t tally as many books as those cities, but there are a growing number of books with Aspen as the location of a story.

One of the most recent is John Irving’s 2022 book “The Last Chairlift.” He spins a tale, featuring ghosts that reside in the Hotel Jerome. There are mythological stories about ghosts that keep being told and retold, but he invents his own ghost cast. His hotel descriptions and street scenes are very accurate.

Having heard about the book before it came out, I was expecting much of it to focus on Aspen; but most of the book’s scenes are in New England, including many great skiing parts at a couple of New England ski hills. 

He does have a very exciting scene that takes place on Loge Peak Lift at Highlands. I don’t want to ruin the book for you by telling you about what happens, but while there is a bit of fictional elaboration, the book creates the sense you get riding up the lift where the two steep bowls drop below the lift, one on each side. The book can put you there, especially if you have feared riding that lift.

My father spent many hours late in his life writing down his memories of Aspen and its fascinating characters. He included extensive details, even better than having photos. For fun, he wrote two fiction short stories. Like in “Gilded Mountain,” he took real places and just changed their names. Instead of Aspen, he called it Blue Jay City. Instead of Queens Gulch, he named it Calcite Gulch. He used some real characters, changing their names, like Ashcroft’s Jack Lehey that he renamed as Judge Fayhey. 

For a long time, I thought the two stories would not be of much use, but I discovered that many of the descriptions and events actually happened. One that I checked out with him seemed like an exaggeration but was actually a true story of his own experience.

The Midnight Mine had two histories – its early years and a second one when my family was involved. The “new” Midnight tunneled from Queens Gulch to below the older workings of the original Midnight in Little Annie Basin. In the 1940s, during the war, Father decided to explore areas of the older Midnight, ones closer to the surface, but ones that had caved. The idea as to locate older stopes, the areas where ore had been taken out, leaving empty caverns, hoping to find areas they had not explored or areas of lower grade ore left behind.

Father was extending a tunnel when he broke through into a small abandoned stope. In it, he found cases of brand-new, unused candles. In the early years, all underground Midnight mining was done by can candlelight.

Those of us who want to “set the record straight” are saddened by finding so many repetitions of historical myths and mistakes that we sometimes feel like it is not worth trying to correct them. 

The other side of me, however, believes that the difference between historical fiction and fictional history is not so great, and a good fictional story can be as enlightening as a fact-checked one. 

Aspen is a great town and has a great history, one much more interesting than most places, one many enjoy learning or being entertained by.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching at Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.