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Commentary on “The Empire Builder”

Katie Kane

I was raised in North Dakota, and my child was born in Fargo while I was dealing blackjack at a local hotel.  I now live in Missoula, Montana.  My family moved here in 1981 to Arlee on the Flathead Reservation.  I am the mother of my own child and my sister’s four children: three of whom are recognized tribal descendants on the rolls of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe.  One of my children, who is enrolled, is currently serving a sentence in Montana for felony robbery—I refer to these details to make clear that I am from the region in ways that contribute to my writing out of the space I live in.  I am no tourist. 

“The Empire Builder” comes from a collection I am working on, The Deep North, which centrally involves the oil fields of North Dakota and Montana. “The Empire Builder” is set inside the train that runs from Chicago to Seattle and records some of the voices of the region. In part the short story addresses the gap that Amitav Ghosh identified in American letters around “the oil encounter.” “The Empire Builder” is a piece of petrofiction—equal parts violence, horror, comedy, and talking salamanders.  I wrote the piece in close dialogue with my six siblings, who share the same stories, home range territory, and tall tales: Sean, Megan, Siobhan, Bart, Abby, and Jim. 

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Katie Kane is completing a short story collection entitled The Deep North, which explores life in the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountain West. One short story from this collection, “Payday Loan,” appeared  in Black Warrior Review Issue 37.1, and a second, “Road Kill,” was published in Salvage #6 Evidence of Things Not Seen. An autotheory piece, “Caddy,” came out in Fence Magazine in fall of 2021.  Kane was the Arts and Culture Editor of Lavil: Life, Love, and Death in Port-Au-Prince (2017)a volume of testimonials on life in Haiti for the McSweeney’s series Voices of Witness. Follow her on Twitter @katiemkane and on Instagram @katie_kane_.

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