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.
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)
From the Publisher
"A genuinely sweet book by a writer who is generous to his characters and readers alike...start to finish Morrie proves a character in the best sense of the word...He's awfully good company...a character with whom it's a pleasure to pass the time no matter the scenery."
"Entertaining for its rich historical take on the town of Butte...and for its evocative descriptions."
"A classic tale from the heyday of American capitalism by the king of the Western novel."
The Daily Beast (Hot Reads)
"As enjoyable and subtly thought-provoking a piece of fiction as you're likely to pick up this summer. It's a book that can be appreciated just for the quality of the prose and the author's adherence to the sturdy conventions of old- fashioned narrative or for Doig's sly gloss on Western genre fiction and unforced evocation of our current condition - or, better yet, for all those things...One of this novel's pleasures is the rich cast of secondary characters Doig effortlessly sketches into his narrative...a pleasure to read."
The Los Angeles Times
"Relax and allow yourself to be re-absorbed into a way of life that is, day by day, being lost to strip malls and strip mining...As in his previous novels, Doig excels at his descriptions of both characters and the land. ..It's hard to keep a smile off your face as you're working your way through this book. Nostalgia has found a happy home here."
New West (starred review)
"If you were looking for a novel that best expresses the American spirit, you'd have to ride past a lot of fence posts before finding anything as worthy as Work Song.
"Not one stictch unravels in this intricately threaded narrative ... infectious."
The New York Times Book Review
"Readers who fell in love with Morrie Morgan in The Whistling Season will welcome him back to Montana in Ivan Doig's latest adventure. The pages turn quickly ... Doig's love of language - more specifically, storytelling - is apparent throughout. ... Richly imagined and beautifully paced."
"With deft strokes of storytelling, Doig paints a vivid scene. [He] introduces ... the most unforgettable librarian in all of American fiction [among] a reach of characters worthy of Dostoevsky. ... Doig has delivered another compelling tale about America, epic as an Old West saga but as fresh and contemporary as the news."
The Seattle Times
"Another insightful, highly readable look at the landscape of the land and the soul...[Doig's] masterful hand takes readers skillfully into the past with a human story that echoes today ... a true treasure."
The Billings Gazette
"Magical ... you'll be enjoying every bit of [Doig's] breathtaking storytelling prowess."
"More atmospheric, pleasingly old-fashioned storytelling from Doig...whose ear for the way people spoke and thought in times gone by is as faultless as ever."
"The most tumultous, quirky, and fascinating city in the American West of the last century has finally found a storyteller equal to its stories. ... Ivan Doig brings to life the core of humanity, and a hell of cast, amidst the shadows and sorrows of Butte, Montana - a city that could say it never slept well before New York made a similar claim."
Tim Egan, author of The Last Hard Time and The Big Burn
"Butte is by far the most colorful town in Montana, a kaleidoscope of culture, commerce and copper mines, the perfect palette for an artist like Ivan Doig. Work Song doesn't just hum along-its rich authenticity echoes and resonates."
Jamie Ford, author of The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
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
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.
…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
What People are saying about this
From the Publisher
“Readers who fell in love with Morrie Morgan in The Whistling Season will welcome him back to Montana in Ivan Doig’s latest adventure… Richly imagined and beautifully paced.” –The Associated Press
“Not one stitch unravels in this intricately threaded narrative… infectious.” –The New York Times Book Review
“As enjoyable and subtly thought-provoking a piece of fiction as you’re likely to pick up this summer. A pleasure to read.” –Los Angeles Times
“If you were looking for a novel that best expresses the American spirit, you’d have to ride past a lot of fence posts before finding anything as worthy as Work Song.” –Chicago Tribune
“A classic tale from they heyday of American capitalism by the king of the Western novel.” –The Daily Beast