Granite Kingdom offers a conjured up history with more than a spark of reality.
A fun part of reading books by Newfane writer Archer Mayor, featuring his Brattleboro police chief Joe Gunther, is the place settings of the tales. Likewise, with William Jaspersohns’ Lake Effect, Sarah Dillon’s Planning For Escape, and, of course, the books by the late, great Howard Frank Mosher. Those many books — Mayor has written over 20 and Mosher was not far behind — and others by Vermont writers gives residents of the state, and visitors, opportunities to find familiarity as they turn the pages. Readers can visualize the street corner, the building, the hill that rises up outside of town.
Granite Kingdom, by Eric Pope, offers the same, but his book is even more fun for local readers. This action packed/what’s going to happen next page turner, with some added twists, is set in 1910 Hardwick, although in the novel Granite Junction is the name of the village and Stonington the name of the town in which the village is located. The characters, although not real people, can often pass for folks who, although their names are changed and, on occasion stuffed into a composite, are readily recognizable. The story describes enough of the settings, from the covered bridge crossing the river, to a jewelry/clock shop on Main Street just a door or two away from a women’s clothing store and the local movie theater, to let those in the know see their town.
Pope knows the people and places he develops on the pages. He and his wife, Karen, lived in Hardwick and owned the Hardwick Gazette from 1977-1986. There’s plenty of reality in the story, even with name changes, to give a ring of — well, that could have happened, or that character sure reminds me of ... It’s fair to call the book local but it’s also a page-turner.
The granite building industry was at its height in 1910 and Hardwick billed itself as the “Granite Building Capital of the World.” The claim was not idle. The town boomed and buildings were built. The Pennsylvania and Wisconsin state capitols were products of the Woodbury Granite Company, with its headquarters on Granite Street. The company also had contracts to supply the cut and shaped stone for the Cook County Court House, the Chicago City Hall, the magnificent and massive Union Station in Washington, D.C., and the main U.S. Post Office in that city. Granite from Hardwick was used in parts of the Kentucky and Iowa state capitols. Multi-story edifices and monuments dot cities and states. Literary license by Pope changed the name of his 1910 drivers of the economy to the Sterling Granite Company and a second company, the Wheeler Granite Company.
From the start, the two companies are in competition and the owners far from friends. A key player throughout the book is The Granite Junction Gazette, on Main Street, its owner and editor living in an apartment above the newspaper’s office. The man’s last name is Slayton, not an unfamiliar name to long-time residents. His reporter is a young man who was forced to drop out of “The Academy” shortly before graduating as his father had died of “white lung disease” brought on by his years working in a granite shed. He also sells ads for the newspaper, assists in the composition in the back room, delivers the finished issues each week and gradually hones his skills. The tasks he performs are not dissimilar to any carried out by a person who has worked at a small weekly newspaper, whether at the turn of the last century or in recent times.
The book starts off and builds its pace as the players are introduced and the plot begins to take shape. This is gradual but that is part of the book’s strength. People who are from away have a tendency to think of small rural towns, whether 110 years ago or currently, as quaint. They drive though a village and laugh later about the one-stoplight town. What they miss is the life that is there on the main streets and side streets, in the businesses, and churches, and schools and events that bring people together. They miss the community. None of that is lost in Granite Kingdom. It is peeled back and offered up. The life of the story is real even if fictionalized.
The dislike and competition between the two companies weaves in and out on the pages of the Gazette, and as stories that are known but not allowed on the newspaper’s pages by the editor. We learn of the granite companies’ owners and their wives. One of the men is a bootstraps man who works hard but has a chip on his shoulder. The other went down country and came back with a college degree and money. Their wives are also from different backgrounds and hold different places in the village. Students from the academy are among the characters in the tale. And a bully of a foreman and his two ham-fisted sidekicks at one of the companies are featured players. The town constable, various shop owners and how what is not allowed but flourishes is given detail. The three men mentioned above make frequent visits to a local laundry that offers female companionship for a price, often crossing paths with more “respectable” members of the village.
The owner of the larger and more prosperous granite business appears to be an upstanding person who excelled in the classroom and on the gridiron at a small Connecticut college before being set up in business by his well-to-do new father-in-law. His efforts to play by the rules and treat his workers well are constrained by two brothers-in-law whose motivation is return on investment rather than engaging in solid and ethical business practices.
There are “industrial accidents,” derrick sabotage, run-away railroad cars, industrial deaths and suicides. There is price fixing on the granite rail lines and a village government that tilts toward “the sound of money being made.” One of the side stories is of the fight for and against liquor. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the WCTU, is a force to not be ignored. (A monument to the organization can be seen in the real East Hardwick.) A special town meeting was called to settle the matter, preceded with an editorial in the Gazette leaving no room for an alternate view:
“It is pure hypocrisy to pretend that the sale of alcohol can be prevented in this village. Our law enforcement agents have raided pool halls, cigar stores, boardinghouses, and even private residences to confiscate liquor that was being sold illegally, and yet the brisk trade goes merrily along,” he wrote in his editorial column. “The WCTU ladies like to pretend that their prohibition is preventing something that happens all the time. Granite Junction is presenting herself to the world as a virgin when it comes to alcohol, but she isn’t, not by a long shot. It will be much better to accept reality and regulate the sale of alcohol.”
Voters in the story, but not all, agreed, casting 300 ballots for the retail sale of alcohol, with 225 opposed. (Hardwick voters at Town Meeting in 2022 approved the retail sale of cannabis 185-172.)
Many of the scenes in the book bring context and commentary, whether from the young reporter, the editor, as seen by what or what he does not allow on the Gazette’s pages, to the shop steward rallying the workers. A retired Academy Latin teacher and some of her former female students stand up for suffrage. Labor strife, unfettered economic growth, exploitation of immigrants, racism, the conflict between an agrarian society and manufacturing find legitimate places in the story. They were as relevant in 1910 as they are today, perhaps the players more easily seen, and ignored, in a small town than a large city, but no less real.
The book contains a lot of history that is woven well with the plot. Pope’s writing is visual; the scenes blend from one to another. The novel would make a good movie. But who knows if that will happen. Don’t wait. Read the book. It’s well written and a lot of fun.
With an engaging cast of characters, Granite Kingdom is a complex yet balanced look at the granite industry and newspaper business in rural Vermont in the early 1900s.
It is 1910, and the northern Vermont village Granite Junction is the nation's largest supplier of finished granite for construction. Newspaper reporter Dan Strickland, a stonecutter's son who hopes to find the right wife and climb the social ladder, finds himself caught between the village's two big granite producers, George Rutherford and Ernest Wheeler. Several fatal industrial accidents prompt Rutherford to ask Dan to look for anarchist saboteurs, while Bob Blackstone, Wheeler's right-hand man, bullies Dan for working for the paper that supports their competitor. Despite the prosperity at the top, almost everyone in the village struggles to attain economic security; some fear ending up at the poor farm. Although Dan triumphs in the end, it is not in the way he had imagined.