Books

‘The Silver Baron’s Wife’: From Rags to Riches to an Immensely Readable Novel

 

There’s an old adage that every copywriter on Madison Avenue has an unpublished novel buried in a desk drawer (along with a bottle of scotch and a pack of cigarettes, if you watched Mad Men).

I first met the renowned advertising copywriter Donna Baier Stein when she relocated to the Boston area in the early 1990s and became an officer of the New England Direct Marketing Association. She and I co-chaired an industry conference and a few years later, we co-authored The New Marketing Conversation. Her clients have included Smithsonian, The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, Citrix and myriad others.

Although some of her top-performing direct mail packages are held up as a gold standard for copywriters, Baier Stein has also made a name for herself in more literary pursuits. She’s the author of Sympathetic People. (Iowa Finalist Award Winner and 2015 IndieBook Awards Finalist) and Sometimes You Sense the Difference. Her writing has earned three Pushcart nominations, and she’s received a prestigious Bread Loaf Scholarship, Johns Hopkins University MFA Fellowship, Allen E. Ginsberg Poetry Prize, grants from the New Jersey Council on the Arts and Poetry Society of Virginia, and more. Her stories and poems have appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, Confrontation, Prairie Schooner, New York Quarterly, Washingtonian, New Ohio Review, Ascent, Puerto del Sol, and many other journals as well as the anthologies I’ve Always Meant to Tell You (Pocket Books), and To Fathers: What I’ve Never Said (featured in O Magazine). She founded and continues to edit Tiferet, a non-sectarian journal of contemporary spiritual literature.

The Silver Baron’s Wife, Baier Stein’s first novel, was published last month. It’s based on the true story of Lizzie “Baby Doe” Tabor, a woman whose eight-decade life took her from middle-class respectability in Wisconsin to the hardscrabble silver mines of Colorado. She refused to adhere to the gender limitations of her day, donning men’s clothing and going down into the mines herself in order to save her ne’er do well first husband’s fortune. Then, after a scandalous divorce, she became the center of an infamous love triangle and eventually mistress of a luxurious Denver mansion, a woman who hob-nobbed with the nation’s most powerful men, even while their wives snubbed her. Her fortunes turned again, however, and Lizzie died alone and impoverished in a tiny mining cabin. Throughout her life, she recorded her dreams and searched for her own personal — and for the times, very progressive — sense of spirituality. Many fragments of her real-life writings, which are housed today in the Colorado Historical Society, punctuate Baier Stein’s moving book.

Told in first-person from Lizzie’s perspective, The Silver Baron’s Wife engages the imagination from the very start. It begins when she’s just a young girl growing up in Oshkosh, already demonstrating the independent spirit that will drive her throughout her life. When a fire breaks out downtown, she’s sent by her mother to save her father who refuses to leave his burning business. She manages to do so and from then on feels responsible for her family’s solvency. This determination eventually leads her to take charge in a foundering marriage and embrace the potential (and potential dangers) inherent in silver mining. Standing just five feet tall, Lizzie was nicknamed “Baby Doe” by her fellow miners, who quickly grew to respect her. Despite the novel’s title, there is a strong feminist undercurrent to The Silver Baron’s Wife. She may have been best known at the time as Horace Tabor’s second (and much younger) bride, but Baier Stein makes it very clear that Lizzie was stronger and wiser than either of her husbands.

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