“If America was a melting pot, Butte would be its boiling point,” observes Morrie Morgan, the itinerant teacher, walking encyclopedia, and inveterate charmer last seen leaving a one-room schoolhouse in Marias Coulee, the stage he stole in Ivan Doig’s 2006 The Whistling Season. A decade later, Morrie is back in Montana, as the beguiling narrator of Work Song.
Lured like so many others by “the richest hill on earth,” Morrie steps off the train in Butte, copper-mining capital of the world, in its jittery heyday of 1919. But while riches elude Morrie, once again a colorful cast of local characters-and their dramas-seek him out: a look-alike, sound-alike pair of retired Welsh miners; a streak-of-lightning waif so skinny that he is dubbed Russian Famine; a pair of mining company goons; a comely landlady propitiously named Grace; and an eccentric boss at the public library, his whispered nickname a source of inexplicable terror. When Morrie crosses paths with a lively former student, now engaged to a fiery young union leader, he is caught up in the mounting clash between the iron-fisted mining company, radical “outside agitators,” and the beleaguered miners. And as tensions above ground and below reach the explosion point, Morrie finds a unique way to give a voice to those who truly need one. — Penguin
I first met Morrie Morgan in Doig’s Whistling Season and I remembered him well when I started to read Work Song. I know several members of my book club had a hard time getting into the story and I think my remembering Morrie helped me enjoy it from the start. You don’t have to have read the first book to follow this story. Actually, I think Doig does a really good job working the important story lines from the previous book. I think some authors have a very hard time working in past stories, especially if you’re read the earlier stories, it came seem very clunky and forced. That’s not the case here.
I love almost any book that expounds on the glory of books and boy does this story. A big portion takes place in the fictional Butte Public Library (if it really existed I would be on the first train to Butte to move in). Morrie’s boss at the library, Sandi Sandison or the Earl of Hell as he’s know around town, has a collection of classic literature to make bibliophile drool. An ex-rancher, with his own shady past, he was one of the characters I just loved. He braved frost bite just to get something to read. How could I not love him?
Morrie finds a way to get himself mixed up in the fight between the miner’s union and the copper mine and winds up on the wrong side of two company goons while leading the drive to find the perfect song to become the union anthem. What I liked about this book, which is what I liked about Whistling Season, is the words. Doig has a way of putting words together I find magical. It’s so lyrical I myself captivated by the language. I hadn’t finished it by the day of my book club but couldn’t bring myself to rush through it because I didn’t want to miss a word.
Whistling Season and Work Song are the only two of Doig’s books I’ve read. Most of his others take place in Montana and seem to have western themes. Old West literature is not a type of fiction I read but I enjoyed two so much I’ll have to give the others a try. Even if I don’t love the stories I’m sure I love the words.