Last week while I was in Hayden, Idaho, Justin Steck, news reporter for The Western News, Libby, Montana’s newspaper, interviewed me regarding my novel, I Can’t Breathe! I enjoyed the process, and he put together an interesting article that I want to share with others. He and his editor, Matt Bunk, have agreed to let me put the article on my website. I encourage readers to check out The Western News for timely stories of interest, not only in Montana, but also across the country. In Libby and Lincoln County, this paper is an important way to keep the community connected within the town and county—and with the rest of the world. The Western News is both in print and online.
Former resident writes fictional book about Libby
Posted: Friday, February 20, 2015 8:56 am | Updated: 9:04 am, Fri Feb 20, 2015.
Justin Steck The Western News
H.M. Bowker planned on writing a book about three of her fellow students from Libby High School. A 1961 graduate, Bowker wanted to tell a story about how kids from a small Montana community can chart their own course to success.
Around that time, she often traveled back to Libby to visit her dying brother, Everett Bowker, whose condition deteriorated further with each visit. “He had asbestosis and was dying a slow death. That bothered me, so I started to research the asbestosis issue and it started taking me in a different direction,” Bowker said.
Bowker was having trouble getting former Montana governor Marc Racicot, co-founder of the Old Country Buffet restaurant chain, Roe Hatlen and the successful maritime lawyer Dean Morigeau to commit to her original project idea.
“I just got sidetracked you know, it was hard to get a hold of them,” she said.
Her new direction led her down a completely different path for her book, but it still revolved around Libby.
More than four years in the making, Bowker completed her book titled “I Can’t Breathe!” in November. Set in Libby in 1958, the novel weaves in threads of Hazel Bowker’s life, exaggerated to varying degrees, and the themes of corporate, child and sexual abuse.
Her goal is to feature abuse in its various forms so people can recognize it, stand up to it and help prevent it.
Losing her father, two brothers, a sister and her sister’s husband all to asbestos related issues, and her personal experience with child abuse was motivation for Bowker to include these serious issues in her book. “It was a healing process for me. It really helped me to let go of some of the things I had been hanging on to for a long time,” she said.
Bowker and her family moved to Libby when she was two years old. In her early years, her father owned a music store on Mineral Avenue that the family lived behind.
Not far from their home, Bowker remembers a big pile of vermiculite by the baseball field she used to play in. “We used to lay in the stuff and just swing our arms and legs to make vermiculite angels. We piled it up to make little house outlines. We threw it at each other and threw it up in the air and pretended it was snow,” she said.
Around her fifth-grade year, the Bowker family moved a few miles out of town. They owned farm animals and it was her responsibility to care for them. “When I turned 12, I started to do a lot of the cooking,” she said. Her sister was also saddled with many chores. Bowker thinks teaching kids the value of work is important. “But they need guidance from a parent along the way to help them enjoy life and develop their personalities,” she said.
Bowker’s parents didn’t get along well. “He spent a lot of time working, and she was lost in her own world,” she said. “I don’t want to complain about my parents. They were the product of their upbringing as well.”
It was difficult at home for Bowker, but she said her and her siblings were always fed well. “I loved going to school, it was really warm there, and it always seemed cold at home,” she said, “I really enjoyed the warmth of school.”
In her freshman year, her father built a hotel she thinks was named the Pioneer Junction Hotel. One of the kids’ jobs was to place Zonolite insulation in the crawl spaces. Bowker became the maid of the hotel and would show the guests to their rooms with her big dog Dusty. Later, the family built a restaurant next door where she waited tables.
“I was absent from school a lot because I had to work at home,” she said. Even though she only had a C-average, she loved school and enjoyed her teachers.
Her love of school continued throughout Bowker’s life. She went on to attend Carroll College where she majored in English and minored in sociology and education. After some years as a stewardess, she was married and spent many years teaching English and art, 17 of those years in Twin Bridges.
Bowker lives with her husband and young son in a community of 50,000 north of Seattle. Her adult daughter and son live nearby and help to raise her son. “It takes a village,” Bowker said. She said her favorite working hours are between 4 a.m. and 7 a.m. “Sometimes characters wake me up, so I have to get up and write. It’s not always my choice, but I have to get up and work it out,” she said.
The main characters in “I Can’t Breath!” are the Bowman family, which includes three sisters, a mentally ill mother and a father who keeps his distance from the turbulence in the home. A half-brother, Eric Bowman, becomes a positive influence for the struggling family and offers an inside view of the Zonolite Mining Company.
While working with the mining company, Eric Bowman reveals company managers are aware of the dangers posed by the asbestos ore for the miners, their families and the consumers of the numerous products that used their product.
Also menacing the town of Libby in the fictional tale is a sexual abuser sheltered in the public school system.
Bowker wrote a book of fiction, but issues broached in the story are faced by communities everywhere. “I wrote fiction to make it more dramatic. I know something about my life and I could build on that and take it to a different place, more exaggerated,” she said, but when it came to mining operations at Zonolite Mountain, embellishment wasn’t required.
“Those people knew how harmful this was and they’ve known it for a long time. And they didn’t try to do things to protect the people of Libby,” H.M. Bowker said. “They had people that didn’t want to spend money on showers or facilities for the workers to cleanup before they went home, so they didn’t.” She said companies were raking in billions in profits from the 60s until the 80s and could have easily put in cleanup facilities for miners.
If people would have been told about some of the dangers of the miracle product used to make paint more durable, cement harder and as fire retardant in ships and cars, they wouldn’t have handled it so carelessly, said H.M. Bowker.
The last thing she wants her book to do is to hurt the town of Libby. She takes issue with the people who owned the mine and were aware of the harm they were responsible for, but chose not to share it. “I have to credit the wonderful terrible job big money has done to keep people from realizing just how bad what they were doing was,” she said.
It’s important to H.M. Bowker that she owns the rights to her novel. If it were ever to be turned into a movie, she said the people of Libby would be realistically portrayed. “I believe Libby has endured enough, I don’t want anything like that to ever happen again,” she said. “I’m a Libby girl, I’m a Libby person. It’s a good community no matter what.”
Bowker plans to write a sequel to her book moving the story into the 60s through 90s, when she said W.R. Grace took the deception to another level.
She said keeping things quiet doesn’t help to cure corporate abuse or child abuse. These issues aren’t something you can wish away.