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Fine Print

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The Mineral Palace is Heidi Julavits' first novel. It is a dark tale that begins in the dusty spring of 1934. Bena Ingrid Jonssen, her husband Ted, and their newborn baby boy relocate from their home in Minnesota to Pueblo, Colorado. Ted is a physician who has accepted a position at the local clinic.

The book's title refers to a famous piece of 20th century jingoistic civic boosterism, built at great expense to be the "eighth wonder of the world," and to "put Pueblo on the map." The Mineral Palace was built in 1891 at the north end of Santa Fe Avenue in what is now the Mineral Palace City Park. The building was 182 feet by 352 feet of Egyptian design (about the size of a football field), with massive stone columns. Each column was covered with designs in Colorado minerals and crusted ores. The stone came from several Colorado quarries. The dome was covered with silver leaf. The town of Breckenridge had a $75,000 gold display on exhibit. Las Animas County provided a huge statue of "King Coal," and Aspen donated a "Silver Queen." The gaudy couple reigned over "the boat house basement" near a large stage where summer plays were held. The immense hall was the scene for glittering social events, a horticulture show, an autobile show. Admission was 50 cents for adults, 25 cents for kids.

The newly rich miners who passed for Pueblo's city fathers spared no expense in the palace's construction. However, they neglected to endow it with a fund for upkeep. In 1927, The Chieftain referred to the Mineral Palace as a "ramshackled, drafty structure, sadly in need of repair and with a majority of its mineral collections scattered or removed." It became a ruin and was razed just 36 years after its construction.

A powerful storyteller, Julavits has brought the Mineral Palace back, resurrecting every stone and jewel, in this haunting and tragic story about one woman's personal journey. It's a story about the difficult and sometimes impossible choices people have to make when faced with unacceptable reality. Perhaps it's true that all people lead their lives as spies lead theirs, full of secrets. The principal characters here all have a clandestine past. Even the town has its secrets. The civic leaders and the socially prominent are especially Pecksniffian, concealing personal corruptions that are horrifying and which scar the lives of future generations.

But this is also a story about the astonishng resilience of the human spirit.

Settling into drought-ridden Pueblo isn't easy with its dust storms and suffocating social circles. Survival seems impossible to Bena Jonssen. To distract herself, she accepts a part-time position at the daily newspaper (on a voluntary basis because it's the Depression and there's no money). Her job is to write a column on the "civic life of our Pueblo ladies." One of those ladies, Reimer Lee Jackson, is a wealthy, abrasive socialite with an artificial leg carved from an elephant's tusk. Jackson heads a committee to restore the town's crumbling monument to the mining industry, the Mineral Palace.

Julavits has an eye for subtle details, physical and psychological. The landscape, culture and characters all come alive under her deft hands. But her real gift is she is able to wring suspense from character, rather than incident, and to find terror in the mundane.

As Bena investigates the strange, abandoned palace, she is drawn not only into the town's prominent social circles, but also into Pueblo's back alleys, and eventually into the seamy hallways of a brothel, where she meets and befriends a pregnant prostitute named Maude, and a handsome cowboy named Red Grissom.

Julavits writes with rugged honesty, crystal clear imagery, and with open-hearted freshness. She has the exigent art of seeing. She gives us an airy, shimmering sense of what life was like during the Dust Bowl '30s in Pueblo:

Bena stopped at the Snow-Brite Laundry to pick up their laundry, wrapped in brown paper and twine and still warm like a thick, soft dough. She was about to enter The Chieftain when she saw the cowboy -- the prostitute's cowboy -- emerge from the alleyway. She watched him as he rounded the corner and climbed the wooden steps to Buck's Silo. The door opened and she heard the sounds of music and men laughing. The door snapped shut, reclaiming the raucous noise like a confession it regretted letting loose in the world.

Bena returns again and again to the decaying palace, and, in the end, is forced to confront some pretty terrifying secrets of her own. Julavits gives us a surprise around every corner.

The Mineral Palace is a great state fair of a book that, while entertaining and shocking us, enlightens us as well.

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