Ivan Doig, born and bred in Montana, has written many popular works of fiction about the American West. In Work Song, he returns to his best-selling 2008 novel The Whistling Season [BookPage review] and its central character, Morrie Morgan. The place: Butte, Montana, of 1919, a bustling post-World War I copper mining capital, where “The Richest Hill on Earth” has enticed Morrie to try his luck at siphoning off a few of the riches said to be waiting in its famed copper veins under the earth.
Work Song is entertaining for its rich historical take on the town of Butte, then in its mining heyday, and for its evocative descriptions of the Anaconda Company’s copper mines. Their warren of shafts and tunnels spews forth thousands of miners, who create a human army as they leave at the end of the day’s shift. It’s a dramatic backdrop to the burgeoning labor disputes brewing between the beleaguered miners and Anaconda’s tycoons, who are sitting pretty in the town’s grand Hennessy Building.
Within this sprawling canvas, the engaging yet elusive Morrie seems a bit of a contradiction, with his charming and mild-seeming exterior and a mind crammed full of literary and historical tidbits of knowledge, while another side of his character resides in his pockets—a handy pair of brass knuckles. Morrie’s boarding house companions, attractive landlady Grace and two retired miners, Griff and Hoop, lead Morrie ever deeper into the explosive labor conflict, as it bubbles under the surface waiting to erupt. Question: Will the villains be conquered by—a song?
Morrie craftily matches wits with two hilarious company goons, Eel Eyes and Typhoon Tolliver. There’s also a fleet-footed urchin straight out of Dickens, so skinny he’s given the name Russian Famine. And, looming large, the mysterious librarian Sam Sandison, who hires Morrie to work amidst his stunning gold and leather book collection. Add a stoic and wily labor organizer and his sparkly fiancé, an old friend to Morrie, and the book comes to life in Doig’s engaging and magical prose.
Rather than blowing you off the page, Doig’s writing has a settling effect; as in, you settle comfortably into your chair, confident you’ll be enjoying every bit of his breathtaking storytelling prowess.