WORK SONG by Ivan Doig

Book Quote:

“Allegiance to a cause is a prickly thing. Put your hand to it just right, and there is the matchless feeling of being part of something greater than yourself. Grab on to it the wrong way, though, and it draws blood. ”

Book Review:

Review by Poornima Apte (JUN 29, 2010)

These days, one of the more famous attractions in Butte, Montana, is the Berkeley pit—a crater full of acidic water and toxic heavy metals. Now one of the costliest Superfund sites in the country, the pit is a remnant of what was once a roaring industry in the city—copper mining. Before the open pit mining technique as exemplified by the Berkeley pit took over the countryside, much of the copper mining in Butte was carried out underground.

It is this underground copper mining industry that forms the backdrop for Ivan Doig’s latest novel, Work Song. Set around 1918 and early 1919, shortly after the end of World War I, it includes a colorful assortment of characters and backdrops. Chief among these is the protagonist, Morrie Morgan, who, as the novel opens, has just arrived in Butte to make a fortune from “The Richest Hill on Earth.”

Morrie is also hoping the loud and raucous Butte will help him hide. He used to be Morgan Llewellyn of Chicago with a brother famous in the sport of boxing. A bet gone awry in a boxing contest has the Chicago mob hot on his heels so Morrie decides to escape.

Morrie soon finds boarding and lodging at the home of a widower, Grace Faraday. Grace also has two other renters who are on the last legs of their mining careers. Having lost his only belongings on the train up to Butte, Morrie must find work quickly. He takes up a job at a local undertaker’s and attends many a loud Irish wake in this capacity. Soon the crazy hours get to him and when he gets offered a job at the local library, Morrie jumps ship.

The head librarian is a legendary figure—an intimidating man both in stature and spirit, called Sam Sandison. He plays a major role in the book and his past history as a rancher adds a lot of color to the storyline.

The copper mining company in town is called Anaconda (just like its real-life counterpart) and soon enough, Morrie finds himself a part of the politics of work in Butte. Even if he is himself not a miner, through an old friend, Morrie meets Jared Evans, a union organizer. All the while, Morrie must watch his back not only for the Chicago mob who might have followed him here, but for Anaconda loyals who might do away with him if they found out about his union meddling.

Doig, who has visited the Montana countryside in his earlier book, Whistling Season, does a good job of painting the Butte from a time long past. “If America was a melting pot, Butte seemed to be its boiling point,” he writes. For it was here that the Serbians, Italians, Welsh, Polish, Irish and various other nationalities lived and worked together.

Butte around the time of the copper boom was also a hotbed of union activity. That same activism is described in these pages as Jared Evans tries to get a good wage and decent working conditions passed. Not only does he have to contend with the bosses of course, but also competing unions.

As the book nears its end, it feels like Doig doesn’t quite know where to take the story. The entire focus of the story line shifts to the composition of a song—a work song (this explains the title). Jared believes that a good and powerful workers’ song—one that can appeal to the various nationalities in Butte—will work wonders in improving unity and morale among union members. He asks Morrie to help him write it.

A good portion of the final pages is spent on this song and the story here really tries hard to tie it all together. There’s even a part where Morrie ventures down into the mines so he can meet with the miners and initiate talk about the song. The reasoning behind this adventure is flimsy at best. You can see that Doig is trying to make full use of his research about mines but is not quite sure how to integrate it into the plot.

Overall, Work Song suffers from a disjointed storyline. The colorful assortment of characters redeems the story somewhat. So does the Butte described within these pages. It is fascinating to get a sneak peek at history and to see how well Butte did before reckless exploitation of natural resources lead to severe environmental degradation. With similar unfortunate stories unfolding all around us, it’s easy to believe that history does have a way of repeating itself.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 40 readers
PUBLISHER: Riverhead Hardcover (June 29, 2010)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
EXTRAS: Reading Guide
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:



June 29, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Facing History, Reading Guide, US Northwest, Wild West

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.