Tuesday, May 27, 2008


Alas, Poor Country takes place on the Colorado Plateau during the volatile uranium boom of the 1950s. It opens with a prologue, and then unfolds in six parts, each introducing a third-person account of an important event.

The opening sections are followed by first-person narratives from the book’s five principal characters: Will Bowen, a learned geologist; Cora McAfree, an old, widowed miner’s wife; Eldon Hopper, the leader of a fundamentalist Mormon outpost; Winton Weams, a young and ambitious fortune-hunter; and Owen Dobcek, a veteran underground miner.

I. Prologue: November 1954
A. Written like depositions, each of the five character introductions explain their innocence in the murder of millionaire miner Verrill Kraft.

II. Part I: June 1953
A. A traveling salesman peddles uranium-fortified tonics and potions in a prospector tenement camp. A fight breaks out between a prospector and Winton, who is charged with claimjumping.
B. Character sections
1. Cora helps Winton, who is beaten badly in the fight, but secretly steals his claim papers.
2. Owen and his partner conduct some underground mining and discuss Owen’s recent highgrading with a man named Verrill Kraft.
3. Winton argues with his wife over her allowing Cora to steal their claim.
4. Will follows an Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) plane far into the hills. He discovers a suspicious prospector, Verrill Kraft, already there.
5. Eldon is at a family meal, which turns tense when his brother arrives unexpectedly with an outsider bearing a proposition for their land.

III. Part II: September 1953
A. A local merchant operates a service whereby he takes groups of tourists out for an afternoon of uranium hunting. On this day, two of the tourists wander too far and one is shot at and presumed killed by a group of camping prospectors.
B. Character sections
1. Cora begins mining her stolen claim, but learns people are looking for her.
2. Owen, along with the other miners in his company, is submitted to a medical test that Owen worries is intended to root out highgraders.
3. Winton visits a lawyer to see what he might be able to do about the theft of his claim. The lawyer, Fisher Lynn, agrees to help and then recommends Winton join him in a new uranium stock venture.
4. Will, reduced to his last few dollars, elects to join a poker game in hopes of winning enough to continue his unorthodox pursuit of uranium.
5. Eldon and others from the community visit their uranium claim, which Eldon was led to by the voice of God and which he prohibits developing without further divine instruction.

IV. Part III: April 1954
A. A Salt Lake City coffee shop has been transformed into a booming uranium stock brokerage to get in on the penny stock boom sweeping the area. Its effects on a car dealership, a newsstand, and a hair salon are also illustrated.
B. Character sections
1. Cora goes into town to buy a refrigerator with the revenue from her uranium earnings. While having a drink, she is served with papers to evacuate the claim and is then challenged by the angry discoverer of claim.
2. Owen and his partner, Tom, are tasked with training a rookie miner. Owen catches the miner stealing uranium.
3. Winton and Fisher fly to Salt Lake City to further a plan to get back at Cora.
4. Will, now broke, makes a final visit to his claim and unearths a huge discovery.
5. Eldon witnesses the brutal fight between his son and the suitor of Eldon’s eldest daughter. The son then turns on Eldon, declaring his allegiance to Eldon’s brother.

V. Part IV: August 1954
A. A local Navajo uranium millionaire buys Cadillacs for five men in his tribe and parades them down Main St. Also, in one of the prospector tenement camps, a bootlegger holds police at bay before finally being killed. He talks about the “lawyer” and “AEC man.”
B. Character sections
1. Cora is surprised in her camp by a man, Verrill Kraft, who claims to have been lost in the hills for nearly 10 days. But the story doesn’t add up.
2. Owen and Tom return underground. Tom is killed in an explosion.
3. Winton takes his wife to see some homes, and then visits Fisher, finding him with Verrill Kraft and another man, Arnold Hipp, a former AEC employee.
4. Will meets with a potentially large investor and makes his pitch for support.
5. Eldon officiates at the wedding ceremony of his daughter to Brother Tipton at which he is challenged by his brother about the community’s claim.

VI. Part V: November 1954
A. Verrill Kraft makes a huge uranium discovery. A writer and photographer from Life magazine are attending a citywide party being thrown by Will Bowen. The wife of the bootlegger shoots and tries to kill Arnold Hipp.
B. Character sections
1. Cora is arrested for trespassing and for firing at a police officer at her camp. She meets with a lawyer, Fisher Lynn, who explains her chances are slim.
2. When the man to whom Owen has been selling his highgraded ore, Verrill Kraft, doesn’t show, he goes to his apartment. Violence ensues and Owen strikes the man in the head with a stone and escapes.
3. Winton and Fisher Lynn laugh about Fisher’s serving as Cora’s lawyer only to exact revenge. They are interrupted by Arnie Hipp’s arrival. Winton listens through the door as the two men argue.
4. Will begins to suspect his partner, Gordon Ewing, is up to something. At a meeting Ewing makes an unexpected announcement.
5. Eldon and his community is raided by Utah police.

VII. Part VI: December 1954
A. Verrill Kraft is found dead. The editor of the newspaper receives a mysterious phone call pointing him to certain information. Owen confesses to the murder, and then so does Eldon Hopper’s new son-in-law.
B. Character sections
1. Cora realizes she has lost the claim and so kills her burros, blows up the dig and walks alone into the desert.
2. Owen is released from jail, and put into the hospital where the prognosis is not good.
3. Winton has his office closed down by the Securities Exchange Commission and learns that he has been cheated by Lynn.
4. Will meets with the AEC about building a processing mill. He learns Ewing, his partner, has already made the deal without him.
5. Eldon finds his brother and others mining the claim. He shoots a couple of the men before he is shot himself by his son.

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