“Denver Noir”, “Saving Yellowstone” and other books to read this month

Black Denver (Akashic Books)

“Denver Noir” edited by Cynthia Swanson (Akashic Books)

Denver has a dark side. And more than a dozen local authors tell you everything.

“Denver Noir” is one of 100 “Black” books published by Akashic Books. They range from Istanbul to Wall Street to New Orleans (which has two.) It’s Denver’s first, and some of Colorado’s best authors have contributed to it.

Among the best are Manuel Ramos’ “Northside Nocturne,” whose own dark book series is set in North Denver.

Like Ramos’ other writings, “Nocturne” has a strong sense of place. In this story, a series of shootings of white men in a gentrified Chicano neighborhood frightens newcomers. Real estate developers are particularly concerned that fear will drive down property values. It “could turn into a mini race war,” Petey, one of the characters, says of the Taco Bell nachos. “Everyone thinks the shooter has to be a Latino.” The story is filled with racial tension and inevitable doom.

In “Ways of Escape” by Barbara Nickless, Persephone, an abused teenager, runs away from her home in eastern Colorado. Nickless is best known for her railroad detective mysteries, so it’s no surprise that Persephone rides the rails to her destination in Denver. It is a grueling journey. A wanderer shares his food with her, then demands payment. As for the end of the journey, well… after all, this is a black book.

The book features 14 writers, including Peter Heller, who writes about a psychopath who trolls Sloan’s Lake on a paddleboard. And David Heska Wanbli Weiden talks about a broke lawyer who thinks he hit hard. Together, in “Denver Noir”, these authors take a diverse look at Denver’s underside.

“Save Yellowstone” by Megan Kate Nelson (Scribner)

Save Yellowstone by Megan Kate Nelson (Scribner)
Save Yellowstone by Megan Kate Nelson (Scribner)

Entrepreneurs were on the verge of cashing in on Yellowstone when Ferdinand Hayden made his historical survey of the park in 1871. An enterprising soul hoped to build a hotel. Others wanted to settle within what would later become the park boundaries. Hayden not only walked the park, he also brought William Henry Jackson to photograph it and Thomas Moran to paint it.

Hayden’s passion was two-fold, writes Megan Kate Nelson, in “Saving Yellowstone.” He didn’t just want to save the precious land of Yellowstone, he also wanted to preserve it.

The Hayden expedition consisted of 32 men, “almost a marching army”, observed Hayden. Their job was to analyze, measure and record boiling rocks, rivers and springs. The result was a report that proved “Yellowstone represented the nation’s peculiar combination of the sublime and the terrible,” Nelson writes.

After returning to Washington, DC, Hayden lobbied for a national park. He had powerful supporters, including environmentalists and many members of Congress. But perhaps its biggest backer was financier Jay Cooke, who was working hard to sell bonds to build a railroad across the North West. He hoped tourists would clamor to visit the park, which would help raise funds for the proposed rail line. Opponents of the park designation were Indians who, although aware of the proposed park, had no power to prevent the designation. They just wanted the white men to go away. Unfortunately for them, Hayden’s reports, Jackson’s photographs and Moran’s paintings defeated them.

Nelson, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his previous book ‘The Three-Cornered War,’ weaves the story of the expedition and struggle to designate Yellowstone a national park with the plight of Native Americans and even reconstruction efforts in the South into a beautiful story.

“Earth is all that lasts” by Mark Lee Gardner (Custom House)

Earth is all that lasts (Custom House)
Earth is all that lasts (Custom House)

Mark Lee Gardner includes two Indian icons, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, in this book about the tragic struggle of Native Americans to drive white people off their land. Crazy Horse was a feared Lakota warrior, while Sitting Bull, once a brave fighter, was elevated to the status of a holy man.

The two participated separately in skirmishes to fight the “long knives”, as the soldiers were called, and together at the Battle of Little Bighorn.

“Courage,” said Crazy Horse to his supporters. “Only the earth lasts forever.” And that’s exactly what they did, surprising the soldiers with their ferocious attacks. Often armed with traditional bows and arrows and battle axes instead of guns, the Indians were formidable opponents as they overran the soldiers. “They were bigger than fiddlers in hell,” one officer noted.

Gardner did prodigious research on the Indian Wars, recounting battle after battle, from the glory days to the end for the Lakota during the infamous Ghost Dance. Both leaders were assassinated – Crazy Horse in 1877 and Sitting Bull in 1890.

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