Excerpt from Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Battleborn

Stories

By Claire Vaye Watkins

Battleborn
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  • Hardcover: Aug 2012,
    304 pages.
    Paperback: Aug 2013,
    304 pages.

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Print Excerpt

GHOSTS, COWBOYS

The day my mom checked out, Razor Blade Baby moved in. At the end, I can’t stop thinking about beginnings.

The city of Reno, Nevada, was founded in 1859 when Charles Fuller built a log toll bridge across the Truckee River and charged prospectors to haul their Comstock silver across the narrow but swift-moving current. Two years later, Fuller sold the bridge to the ambitious Myron Lake. Lake, swift himself, added a gristmill, kiln and livery stable to his Silver Queen Hotel and Eating House. Not a bashful man, he named the community Lake’s Crossing, had the name painted on Fuller’s bridge, bright blue as the sky.

The 1860s were boom times in the western Utah Territory: Americans still had the brackish taste of Sutter’s soil on their tongues, ten-year-old gold still glinting in their eyes. The curse of the Comstock Lode had not yet leaked from the silver vein, not seeped into the water table. The silver itself had not yet been stripped from the mountains, and steaming water had not yet flooded the mine shafts. Henry T. P. Comstock—most opportune of the opportunists, snatcher of land, greatest claim jumper of all time—had not yet lost his love Adelaide, his first cousin, who drowned in Lake Tahoe. He had not yet traded his share of the lode for a bottle of whiskey and an old, blind mare, not yet blown his brains out with a borrowed revolver near Bozeman, Montana.

Boom times.

Lake’s Crossing grew. At statehood in 1864, the district of Lake’s Crossing, Washoe County, was consolidated with Roop County. By then, Lake’s Crossing was the largest city in either. The curse, excavated from the silver vein and weighted by the heavy ore, settled on the nation’s newest free state.

Or begin the story here: In 1881 Himmel Green, an architect, came to Reno from San Francisco to quietly divorce Mary Ann Cohen Magnin of the upscale women’s clothing store I. Magnin and Company. Himmel took a liking to Reno and decided to stay. He started designing buildings for his friends, newly rich silver families.

Reno’s Newlands Heights neighborhood is choked with Green’s work. In 1909, 315 Lake Street was erected. A stout building made of brick, it was one of Himmel’s first residential buildings, a modest design, small porch off the back, simple awnings, thoroughly mediocre in every way. Some say construction at 315 Lake stirred up the cursed dust of the Comstock Lode. Though it contaminated everyone (and though we Nevadans still breathe it into ourselves today), they say it got to Himmel particularly, stuck to his blueprints, his clothing, formed a microscopic layer of silver dust on his skin. Glinting silver film or no, after his divorce was finalized Himmel moved in with Leopold Karpeles, editor of the B’nai B’rith Messenger. Their relationship was rumored a tumultuous one, mottled with abuse and infidelity. Still, they lived together until 1932, when the two were burned to death in a fire at Karpeles’s home, smoke rising from the house smelling like those miners boiled alive up in Virginia City mine shafts.

Or here. Here is as good a place as any: In March 1941, George Spahn, a dairyman and amateur beekeeper from Pennsylvania, signed over the deed to his sixty-acre farm to his son, Henry, packed four suitcases, his wife, Helen, and their old, foul-tempered calico cat, Bottles, into the car, and drove west to California, to the ocean.

He was to retire, bow out of the ranching business, bury his tired feet in the warm Western sand. But retirement didn’t suit George. After two months he came home to their ticky-tacky rental on the beach and presented Helen with plans to buy a 511-acre ranch at 1200 Santa Susana Pass Road in the Santa Susana Mountains. The ranch was up for sale by its owner, the aging silent-film star William S. Hart.

Excerpted from Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins. Copyright © 2012 by Claire Vaye Watkins. Excerpted by permission of Riverhead Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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