Anaconda, in southwest Montana, was home to the world’s largest copper smelter. Marcus Daly established the first smelter in 1884. In 1980, the last plant closed its doors. Anaconda deals primarily with the community from the 1930s through the 1970s, and focuses on social life, work, unions, and the role of women in an industrialized western town.

An associate professor of history at Washington State University at Vancouver, Laurie Mercier undertook much of the research for Anaconda while she served as state oral historian for Montana.

The strength of Mercier’s work is her attention to women. She doesn’t ignore the male story, but she continually brings her tale back to the role of women—in politics, in the home, and in the factory.

Mercier carefully records how national and international events affected Anaconda—the Depression strengthened unions, while World War II created opportunity for women. This attention to the larger picture is critical, for the smelters came to be controlled by international conglomerates. When foreign investments provided greater corporate earnings, Anaconda’s fate was sealed. Like so many communities based on extractive resources, it eventually declined as business moved elsewhere. In 1980, the Atlantic Richfield Corporation closed the last smelter, forever changing the complexion of this town of 10,000.

Mercier has written a solid, extremely well-researched history of a western community. It holds up well when compared to several other significant Montana studies penned in the past two decades.

My only criticism is that Mercier has the background to have gone beyond those previous works. For an author who has been one of the strongest national advocates for the use of oral history as a legitimate scholarly resource, she surprisingly does not really allow her narrators to have a “voice.” We get short quotations from them occasionally, but we don’t get to know—to love or to hate—any of the characters.

But it is too easy to critique a book for something it isn’t, or was not intended to be. For presenting working class life, with an emphasis on ethnic diversity and gender roles, Anaconda is an outstanding study.

Laurie Mercier, associate professor, history
University of Illinois Press
Champaign, IL
2001