Work Song

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"[A] novel that best expresses the American spirit." ?The Chicago Tribune

?If America was a melting pot, Butte seemed to be its boiling point,? observes Morrie Morgan, the itinerant teacher and inveterate charmer who stole readers? hearts in The Whistling Season. A decade later, he steps off the train and into the copper mining capital of the world in its jittery 1919 heyday. While the riches of ?the Richest Hill on Earth? may elude him, once again a colorful cast of local ...

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2010 Trade paperback New. No dust jacket as issued. Tight binding with clean text. New. Is uncorrected proof. Glued binding. Paper over boards. With dust jacket. 275 p. ... Audience: General/trade. Morrie Morris, last seen in Doig's The Whistling Season, steps off the train in Butte, MT in time to witness the great copper wars. Read more Show Less

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Work Song

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"[A] novel that best expresses the American spirit." –The Chicago Tribune

“If America was a melting pot, Butte seemed to be its boiling point,” observes Morrie Morgan, the itinerant teacher and inveterate charmer who stole readers’ hearts in The Whistling Season. A decade later, he steps off the train and into the copper mining capital of the world in its jittery 1919 heyday. While the riches of “the Richest Hill on Earth” may elude him, once again a colorful cast of local characters seek him out. Before long, Morrie is caught up in the clash between the ironfisted Anaconda Mining Company, radical “outside agitators,” and the beleaguered miners. As tensions build aboveground and below, Morrie finds a unique way to give a voice to those who truly need one, and Ivan Doig proves yet again why he’s reigning king of Western fiction.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Doig affectionately revisits Morris "Morrie" Morgan from the much-heralded The Whistling Season. Now, 10 years later, in 1919, Morrie lands in Butte, Mont., beholding the area's natural beauty that "made a person look twice." Scoring a job is a top priority, as is getting more face time with Grace Faraday, the alluring widow who runs the boardinghouse where he stays. Things, naturally, are complicated, as the fiendishly bookish Morrie is on the run from Chicago gangsters who feel they've been duped after he scored a windfall from a fixed sports wager. The local "shysters" at the duplicitous Anaconda Copper Mining Company, meanwhile, find Morrie's sudden interest in Butte highly suspicious as they try to bully Grace into selling her property. Morrie lands what might be an ideal job working at the public library with ex–cattle rancher Samuel Sandison, though our sturdy narrator must choose sides when the mining company ups the ante. Drama ebbs and flows as Morrie yields to the plight of union leader Jared Evans, and Morrie and Samuel come to terms with sins from their pasts. Charismatic dialogue and charming, homespun characterization make Doig's latest another surefire winner. (July)
Library Journal
Doig's eagerly awaited sequel to The Whistling Season (2006) begins ten years later in 1919, when Morrie Morgan gets off the train in Butte, MT, "the richest hill on earth," run by Anaconda Copper. He settles into a boardinghouse run by the widow Grace and is befriended by her other boarders, Griff and Hoop, two retired miners who tell Morrie what's going on in town. Scholarly Morrie finds his niche at the public library, the domain of a crusty retired rancher named Sandison, who comes with the territory because the entire library is his own magnificent book collection. Before long, Morrie discovers he's being shadowed by Anaconda's thugs for being a strike agitator, when, in fact, he tries not to take sides in the miners vs. Anaconda dispute. He can't stay neutral for long, however—his knowledge of bookkeeping provides the miners' union with a bargaining chip. His musical talent helps 200 tough, rock-hard miners, smuggled into the library basement after hours, compose a rousing strike song that will bolster their courage during coming hard times. VERDICT Doig delivers solid storytelling with a keen respect for the past and gives voice to his characters in a humorous and affectionate light. Recommend this to everyone you know; essential. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 3/1/10.]—Donna Bettencourt, Mesa Cty. P.L., Grand Junction, CO
Kirkus Reviews
Returning to Montana in 1919, ten years after he pinch-hit as a rural schoolteacher in The Whistling Season (2006), Morris Morgan finds the city of Butte roiled by labor unrest. The Anaconda Copper Mining Company has just imposed a 22 percent pay cut that has union leader Jared Evans reluctantly planning a strike if the company won't negotiate in good faith. Morrie is sympathetic, particularly since Jared is engaged to one of his former students, but he's more interested in finding a job and getting better acquainted with Grace Faraday, the feisty widowed proprietress of his boardinghouse. After an unsatisfactory stint at a funeral home-the boozy wakes are too hard on his head-Morrie's scholarly savoir faire gets him hired by Samuel Sandison, an eccentric former rancher who runs the Butte public library (mostly because the trustees covet his magnificent book collection). Unfortunately, Morrie gets noticed by two of Anaconda's goons, who think that a guy arriving in Butte with a sketchy back story and without a trunk must be one of those radical outside agitators the company likes to string up from time to time. Since Morrie is still on the lam from Chicago gangsters who took a dim view of his winning money from them by betting on a fixed fight, he's not eager to have anyone poking around in his past. So it's maybe not the smartest move to agree to let the union hold clandestine meetings at the library, especially since Sandison has warned him against taking sides, but Morrie can't help getting involved when his sympathies are roused. His debonair, mildly sardonic voice makes Morrie an engaging narrator/protagonist, though the novel's most riveting character is Sandison, who atones for past misdeeds with an appropriately bookish contribution to the union's struggle. More atmospheric, pleasingly old-fashioned storytelling from Doig (The Eleventh Man, 2008, etc.), whose ear for the way people spoke and thought in times gone by is as faultless as ever.
Joanna Hershon
…not one stitch unravels in this intricately threaded narrative. And while Doig lays out the plot somewhat predictably, he also makes room for reflective moments in which Morrie confronts fears both real and imagined; it's through these reflections that we get fine glimpses of his darker persona…In conjunction with Morrie's interactions among the ­other characters, these more introspective passages help to build an appealing storytelling rhythm.
—The New York Times
The Barnes & Noble Review

Morrie Morgan, the charmer who starred in Ivan Doig’s The Whistling Season as the man impressed into duty as teacher in a tiny town inundated by homesteaders in the 1907 Montana land rush, returns to Montana from a decade-plus in Australia and settles in the boisterous mining town of Butte.

Work Song kicks off with Morrie (whose surname is actually Llewellyn) hiding out from Chicago gangsters he fleeced in a boxing scam that ended up with his prizefighter brother dead. He stumbles into a Welsh boarding house run by a woman whose husband had died in the Spectator mine fire—the worst disaster in mining history—two years before. She and the other roomers, two retired miners, clue him in to the town’s idiosyncracies, beginning with advice to never wear the “copper collar”—i.e., become an Anaconda Copper company man. “Lowest form of life,” one of the miners tells him.

Doig’s choice of time and place offers incredible riches. "If America was a melting pot, Butte would be its boiling point,” Morrie notes. The “Richest Hill on Earth” was a boomtown in 1919, with tens of thousands of Cornish, Finnish, Irish, Italian, Serbian and Welsh miners drawn to the wages of four and a half dollars a day -- a rate to rival that of Henry Ford’s new assembly line in Detroit. Each immigrant group had its neighborhood characters and rituals, from the long-form wakes of Dublin Gulch (there was a death every week in the mines) to the saunas and polkas of Finntown.

Two years before Morrie's arrival in Butte, a Wobbly (International Workers of the World) organizer was lynched by company goons. The head of the miners’ union, who is calling wildcat strikes to protest a dollar-a-day decrease in wages, asks Morrie’s help in keeping his miners from joining the more radical Wobbly cause.

“His conversation came off the top of his head and out his mouth seemingly without passing through his brain. It was as if he had speaking apparatus on the outside of his head, like English plumbing,” Morrie muses in a typical aside.

Morrrie settles into a job in the lavishly appointed Butte Public Library, which is run by a dictatorial former rancher Sam Sandison—“he’s meaner than the devil’s half brother,” a fellow boarder warns. Sandison’s power derives from his world-class collection of leatherbound gilt-edged books. (Morrie’s delight in these books is one of the joys of Work Song.)

Doig underscores the slyness and wit of the miners who stood in opposition to the company. Particularly tasty is the relationship between Morgan and the two company goons who tail him when he arrives in town without luggage (his was lost). Morrie recognizes the one with the “flattened features and oxlike blink,” as a former heavyweight champion Typhoon Tolliver, made of “muscle, gristle and menace.” For his part, Tolliver sees Morrie as nothing more than “one of those outside infiltrators.”

Morrie descends into the Muckaroo mine and describes the fearsome ride down to 3,000 feet below the surface, the hellish heat, the cave-ins from nearby dynamiting explosions. His mission: to unite the miners behind a song that would measure up to the IWW’s effective “Pie in the Sky” ditty. And on Miners’ Day, the one day off for the year, he accompanies his gussied-up landlady to the company-sponsored picnic at the elegant Columbia Gardens, one of the few places in Butte with green grass.

The rollicking final chapters to Work Song are light-hearted in comparison to the history of this hard-scrabble, hard-luck town. But Doig, who was raised in White Sulphur Springs, gets Butte right, beginning with the rhythms of the language, which arose from the multi-ethnic stew to create an argot so tasty it also informed that prototype of hard-boiled detective novels, Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 novel Red Harvest. (Hammett’s Continental Op, a Pinkerton man, opened his story with a Butte character: “I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte.”) Read Hammett for the grit, Doig for the lingering melody of a long-vanished era.

--Jane Ciabattari

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594487620
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/29/2010
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 6.48 (w) x 9.36 (h) x 0.99 (d)

Meet the Author

Ivan Doig

Often called the dean of writers about the American West, Ivan Doig is the author of such national bestsellers as The Whistling Season and The Bartender's Tale. His work has been translated into Spanish, Japanese, German, and Finnish, and his honors include seven regional booksellers awards, the Evans Biography Prize, and the Wallace Stegner Award, among others. He lives in Seattle.
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Reading Group Guide


A decade after he left Montana at the end of Ivan Doig's bestselling The Whistling Season, Morrie Morgan is back—this time in post-WWI Butte, the copper-mining capital of the world. When Morrie gets caught up in the mounting clash between the mining company, outside agitators, and the beleaguered miners, he finds a unique way to give a voice to those who truly need one.


Ivan Doig was born in Montana and grew up along the Rocky Mountain Front. A former ranch hand, newspaperman, and magazine editor, with a Ph.D. in history, Doig is the author of ten novels and three works of nonfiction, including the classic memoir This House of Sky.


  • What are the promises and challenges of the less settled frontier life? What kind of personalities do you think make out best under these conditions? Which have a hard time flourishing?
  • "Copper is the blood of Butte" (126). Copper pulses through the veins of the town, and holds the key to Butte's identity. How do the Anaconda Mining Company, and the tensions with the union and the IWW, shape Butte and the lives and destinies of the residents?
  • Ivan Doig is as careful in planning and plotting his novels as he is in the writing. Why, then, might he have made Morrie a "cryer" as his first job in Butte?
  • In Work Song, the town library serves a vital role not only as a home for precious literary volumes, but it also stands as a community center for a wide variety of groups and ideas. Has the role of the public library changed?
  • What is it about Morrie's temperament and skills that make him such an adaptable leader? He seems uniquely suited for each position put in front of him—from promoter to cryer to librarian—until another calling presents itself…
  • Describe the women in Morrie's life (Rose, Grace, Rab). What does he gain from and share with each?
  • From the miners at Anaconda to Dora Sandison's Gilbert and Sullivan appreciation group, discuss the place of song in the lives of the townspeople. What gives these songs—from the hymns to the protest calls—their power and passion? What is the significance of the miner's new work song?
  • Were you surprised by Sandison's involvement with the winning work song—especially after learning the truth behind some of his mythologies and misdeeds? Do you find this a plot device by the author or a moral of redemption in the story?
  • Why does Morrie feel so protective of Russian Famine, going so far as to set him up with a steady position and a financial future? Before departing he also provides for the miners, Rab and Jared, and Hoop and Griff. Discuss his motivation.
  • What adventures do you think lie in store for the Morgans as they depart for a new life?
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 14 )
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  • Posted July 30, 2012

    great book

    I was born and raised in Montana, my uncles worked in some of the Butte mines so this was fascinating to me. Sometimes I think Butte is not a place but a state of mind, all the folks I met when I lived here were kind to one another, that is the working folks, even though lots of them were a "rough" bunch. My favorite uncle died in a mine accident, though not one in Butte but in Idaho. This is a fascinating story well worth reading.

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