Work Song

by Ivan Doig

Paperback, 2011

Call number




Riverhead Books (2011), Edition: Reprint, 304 pages


Fiction. Literature. Historical Fiction. HTML:An award-winning and beloved novelist of the American West spins the further adventures of a favorite character, in one of his richest historical settings yet. "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. Watch a Video.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member eduscapes
Ivan Doig has penned a second historical novel that features the former school teacher from The Whistling Season. Now using the name Morrie Morris, he arrives by train in the post-WWI copper mining city of Butte, Montana. The railway has lost his travel trunk, and Morrie shortly gains the unwanted
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attention of a couple of Anaconda Mining Company thugs on the lookout for outside agitators seeking to organize mine workers. Concerned with keeping his family history concealed, Morrie finds employment first as a funeral 'cryer' followed shortly with a position as assistant to the director of the Butte Public Library, a former cattle rancher with his own legendary past. Friendship with a pair of retired Welsh minors who live at the same boarding house, a reunion with a former student, and his fledgling relationship with a widowed landlord all lead to Morrie's further entanglement in the plight of Butte's mine laborers. Doig's development of unique and oftentimes quirky characters that are enfolded into historical tales of western settlement and expansion contribute to another interesting book - - not to be missed. (lj)
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LibraryThing member jfurshong
As a Montanan I admit that I am partial to Ivan Doig. My first exposure was “This House of Sky”, truly an exceptional memoir and one that lovingly captures a complicated Montana childhood. The love affair continued with “English Creek”, “Dancing at the Rascal Fair” and “Bucking the
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Sky”, all three linked with the story of one family. Then came a few I could have probably skipped. But with his “The Whistling Season” I knew he was back in form. This new novel, “Work Song” is linked as well, and Morrie Morris, a memorable character from “The Whistling Season” now takes center stage.

On the run from a checkered past in Chicago, and an ill-fated romance on the Montana hi-line, Morrie shows up in Butte, Montana in 1919, in the midst of labor turmoil. He fortunately finds lodging in a boarding house run by the widowed Grace Faraday and a job at the Butte Public Library. The labor unions are chafing under the brass-knuckled tactics of the Anaconda Company goons. Doig skillfully sets the scene as the miners, mostly immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Cornwall, Russia and Sweden struggle to find a way to stand up for their rights as one union with one voice. Morrie crosses paths with a former student from the hi-line and her beau, a union organizer and a humorous and entertaining plot is set into motion. Morrie agrees to help the multi-ethnic union members choose a “work song”, a unifying theme song that will demonstrate their solidarity and further their cause.

Doig has a unique writing style that captures the lively spirit of the times and the complexity of the characters strutting on Butte’s colorful stage. “Work Song” is a quick-paced novel that brought great pleasure to this lover of Montana’s talented writers. But it will be a treat to all non-Montanans (but Montana lovers) as well.
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LibraryThing member Oregonreader
Several years ago, I visited Butte, Montana and had a look at the huge scar in the earth left by the Anaconda copper mine. I stood above the toxic lake, so deadly nothing can live near it, and drove through the ghost town on the hills above where the cabins of the workers stand abandoned. It was an
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unforgettable sight. In Work Song by Ivan Doig, the heyday of Anaconda and Butte in the early 20th century is brought to life. The central character, Morrie Morris, steps off the train in Butte, hoping to leave his previous life behind and find good paying work. Morris quickly settles in and meets a series of townspeople who draw him into the life of the town. Through two retired miners at his boarding house, he gets a look at the hard life of the miners and their families and is swept into the tensions between the union, the wobblies, and the mining company. He finds work at the public library, run by a wealthy ex-rancher, a bibliophile who buys rare books and loans them to the library, and who tells Morris not to get involved in the fight between the workers and the company.. Morris is a fascinating and complex character. He tries to avoid committing himself but finds that ultimately, he has to make a choice. Doig creates characters who deal with tragedy but keep their dignity and sense of humor. He is amazingly good at creating a sense of place. His descriptions of Butte and the land around it come to life in this book and give a real feel for the west. I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys a good story and memorable characters.
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LibraryThing member samfsmith
This is a pleasant enough book, basically a reminiscence of 1919 Butte, Montana. Morrie Morgan, a character from Doig’s earlier novel, “The Whistling Season”, blows into Butte, penniless and without prospects, and becomes a peripheral character in a conflict between the miner’s union, a
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communist worker’s group, and the mine owners. The conflict can be summarized as: union good, communists bad, capitalists evil. Only the union viewpoint is examined – none of the characters belong to any of the other groups.

There is not much depth here. The plot is thin, the characters are not surprising or even very interesting, and the ending is blah. Doig’s earlier novel, “The Whistling Season”, was much better.
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LibraryThing member lyzadanger
The third in a series of novels following the adventures and misadventures of Morrie Morris, Ivan Doig's newest yarn maintains his hallmark breezy, historically-rich Western style, even if the payoff isn't terribly memorable.

Morris stumbles into Butte, Montana, in its post-WWI heyday, trying to
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escape the shadows of his past. He lodges in a boarding house run by the smart-talking, tough, and handsome widow Grace Faraday. Her perspective, like those of nearly all of Butte's residents, is framed by a singular, larger-than-life corporate hydra: the Anaconda Company, which spearheaded the mining operations on the 'world's richest hill' of copper. The mining men and miner's wives, the cafes and mouthpiece newspaper--it's like the town of Butte exists as a support network for the the juggernaut mining company.

Morris' first employment attempt in Butte results in a farcical stint working for a local mortuary. This translates into surreal whisky-fueled all-nighters at wakes in the Irish part of town and provides Doig a good opportunity to introduce us to some foreshadowing in the shapes of several hardened but goodhearted union organizers. The whole funerary thing mercifully over, Morris moves on to a more plausible employment: at the library, under the blazing eye of Sam Sandison, who is, according to some local residents, possibly the devil.

Cue some blasts from the past. This is, recall, the third book in a series. There's the chipper former student who provides spunk and, well, that's about it, though she is conveniently married to the (darkening clouds of uh-oh!) head union agitator. There's also Morris' inability to escape his weird, gambling fraud past--they always seem to find him, even if this is the 1910s in rural Montana.

But never mind that. That feels like necessary housekeeping. What's fun are the new ideas and people. 'Work Song' feels comfortable in its own skin. Doig is inventive (but not too inventive), his characters quirky (but not exasperatingly quirky). Combine Doig's training as a historian and his command of the anecdotal, and it can be occasionally uncanny just how lolling and self-confident the narrative can be.

Sometimes the story wanders too far into a mineshaft, sometimes it holds a singular note about workers' rights just a bit too long. Sometimes Doig's earnest attention to tying into the previous novels wears thin. Where Doig shines in 'Work Song' is in illuminating new ideas and folks: the real-life empire of the Anaconda mining company, the mercurial eruptions of Sam Sandison, a wiggly youth they call Russian Famine, a quick look into early 20th-century slang. It almost seems like he needs to set himself free of the shackles of a continuing series, and give us what he does best: gorgeous glimpses into the landscapes and humanity of the American West.
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LibraryThing member cindysprocket
Before reading this book I read "The Whistling Song" a book based on the same character. While not necessary it does help to bring out the personality of Morrie. I read both books in 5 days that is measure of how much I enjoyed both books. I am looking forward to seeing what may happen to Morrie if
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there is to be another book. I must apologize the First book was 'Whistling Season".
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LibraryThing member faceinbook
The reason I gave this novel four stars rather than five is the fact that I am an avid Doig fan. I've real all of Ivan Doig' s novels and enjoyed each and every one of them. It is perhaps to his disadvantage that I have done so before reviewing this particular novel. There are too many comparisons
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to be made.... Doig is, for the most part a five star novelist.....This one is not one of my very favorites but, having said this, I would still rate this novel as a "very good" read.
I enjoyed the continuation of Morrie's life. A story begun in a prior novel titeld "The Whistling Season", though the book can stand well enough on it's own. Doig's sense of time and place is, as always, spot on and his sense of humor is refreshing.
While some novel's seem to be a "roller coaster ride"......Doig's works are usually "armchair" tales, they are easy to read, yet deep enough to intrigue.
I would recommend this book to almost ANY type of reader....being both a bit of a history lesson and a peek into what makes most of us who we are, there are few readers who could find fault with this novel.
For Doig fan's this book will not disappoint....for first time Doig readers.....this is an excellent starting point....ENJOY !
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LibraryThing member Rosareads
This is an Early Reviewers copy.
It's a pleasure to read a good story. Doig has a style reminiscent of earlier writers--Twain, Ferber, Guthrie--that develops character(s) in a relatively simple plot with twists and turns that makes for a good read. I loved The Whistling Season which precedes this
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story (although this is a stand alone story)and found the warmth engendered in his telling carrying me along as I read and enjoyed. Work Song lacks some of the poignancy of The Whistling Season. Nonetheless it's charming and poetic.
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LibraryThing member Esta1923
Early Reviewers

Work Song by Ivan Doig
[The cover mentions that Doig is author of "The Whistling Season." Both novels put readers in touch with Morrie Morris, a man of charm, talent and complicated background, who is said to suffer from Pernicious Bachlorhood.]

Butte, Montana is dominated by the
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Anaconda Mine Company. Morrie learns this fact of life soon after his arrival, in conversation at the boarding house when his intent to seek work there is greeted with dismay by his widowed landlady (her husband killed in mine fire) and two (very old ) retired mine workers. He has come at a tense period of simmering conflict between the company and the miners (and between local miners union and the international.)

It's not fair to call Morrie a con-man or an opportunist. Those are loaded words. Just say that he stays afloat whatever the situation. Not many of us could manage his first job: representing the undertaker as a "Cryer" at wakes. Expressing sympathy to the bereaved requires speaking well of the dead, staying until the last visitor leaves (and eating, singing, drinking meanwhile).

He finds the public library unusual in its holdings: beautifully bound books, some on a semi-secluded mezzanine, others mixed unobtrusively on the shelves. And it is there he encounters Samuel Sandison, wealthy, eccentric millionaire who hires him as (Morrie says) a "general factorum. "

"Work Song" has a rich cast, twists of plot, gentle humor, stark realism. These elements blend to give readers a link to the past as we hear of mine disasters today.
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LibraryThing member GarySeverance
Ivan Doig’s novel is both an exciting adventure tale and a brief presentation of the history of copper mining and mine unions in Butte, Montana. Morrie Morris, aka Morris Morgan, on the run from the Chicago mob because of boxing gambling indiscretions, drifts into Buttte with his undisclosed
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history of elementary school teaching and bookkeeping work. Better educated than most of the town’s residents, Morrie finds lodging,employment, and adventure.

The historical context of Work Song concerns the clash between localized trade unions and “Wobblies”, the International Workers of the World. Both organizations fight the greedy and unapproachable executives of the Anaconda Company who are gathering wealth mining copper used in the electrification of America. The miners’ trade union wants fair wages for their dangerous work given the high profits of Anaconda. The Wobblies want a socialist reorganization of the company and destruction of its capitalist system of mining.

Work Song is Mr. Doig’s thirteenth novel, and readers will appreciate his seamless writing style and engaging characters in this good selection from the adventure/history genre. The novel is a well-structured story that gives readers a realistic glimpse of the booming post World War I life in a Western frontier mining town. The beginning of concern for the destruction of the environment, the ascendency of labor unions, the preservation of ethnic identities, and the foundation for future establishment of progressive political policies when conflicts arise are interesting themes of Work Song.
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LibraryThing member herzogbr
The story itself is an interesting one: an outsider with a mysterious past ends up in Butte, Montana, in 1919, seeking his fortune in the copper mining town known as "the richest hill on earth." This solitary mission get waylaid by the politics of mine workers, unions, wobblies, the overarching
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company running the town, and the earnest lives of the people he can't help but be come involved with. But the story is secondary to the language, which is the real reason to read this book - quick wit, colorful imagery, wild west plain speaking, and phrases and accents from a host of nationalities in this melting pot will surely add as much to the reading as the engaging plot and dynamic characters.
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LibraryThing member charlottem
Mr. Doig never disappoints me when I am in the mood for an entertaining historical novel with a simple plot. An enjoyable relaxing read.
LibraryThing member Jeanomario
I had heard of Ivan Doig, but have not read him until now. I love his unique use of language and found the book immediately appealing. His descriptions are thorough and vivid without being verbose. The story moves along, tricking the reader into thinking you know Morrie's secret past when no one
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else does. As the tale unfolds, you can't help but choose sides, liking even the unscrupulous characters along the way. The last 5th of the book was a bit empty and sing-songy, wrapping up all story lines in a neat and tidy package, satisfying but not as gritty and impending as the book began.
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LibraryThing member eembooks
This book is follow-up of Morrie from the Whistling Season. Morrie is colorful but not as inspiring. Thought the middle of the book dragged on a bit.
LibraryThing member khiemstra631
I think that Ivan Doig is one of the greatest living western writers. I thoroughly enjoyed his newest book, Work Song, which is the story of one Morrie Morgan in Butte, MT immediately following World War I. Copper mining, union activities, and the public library figure heavily in the plot of the
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novel. (Maybe it was the emphasis on the library that so captivated me!) Morrie previously appeared in a Doig novel set ten years earlier, The Whistling Season, when he did a stint as a teacher in a one-room school. Now he has moved on to library work after a period of time in New Zealand. Doig really brings Montana history to life. This one is a winner!
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LibraryThing member Doondeck
I found this book rather disappointing. It's really a "homespun" yarn about Morrie Morgan. The plot seemed superficial and the characters two dimensional. I saw in some reviews, that Doig was being compared to Wallace Stegner. In my opinion, Stegner's place is secure and Doig no way approaches his
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talent. Since I didn't read "The Whistling Season", I was confused how the character's name changed from Llewelyn to Morris to Morgan.
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LibraryThing member ArieJvdP
I give "Work Song" three stars, out of my sincere respect for the author's oeuvre and in particular for this book's lead character, Morgan Llewellyn (aka Morrie Morris), as observed in an earlier volume, "The Whistling Season." Had I not read that book beforehand, I would have given "Work Song"
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just two stars. If you read no further and have not met Ivan Doig before, do read "The Whistling Season" and an earlier memoir, "This House of Sky." In those you will be treated to Doig's full ability to describe and startle, to sketch atmosphere, deliver taste and smell, to express in English afresh the meanings that inhabit the crevices of daily life lived long ago. Doig is a master at linking the details of the small occurrences of life lived in ordinary, repetitive circumstance into a strong strands of emotion and surprise. That mastery unfortunately is not in evidence in "Work Song."

"Work Song" is a pastiche, airy here, kludgy there, of plot elements appear for mild comic effect but cloy more than amuse. Brass knuckles, soft-hearted restaurant owners, hard-hearted mining corporations, a library full of rare books in a hard-scrabble mining town just after World War II where few read, rancher turned rare book collector and public library manager, music to rally miners, world series and boxing trivia, (spoiler alert:) big betting wins, homebodies who within a paragraph agree to head off to far away places unknown, the "pernicious bachelor" who proposes and marries the same evening. These simulacra do not convey the kind of story Doig is able to tell.
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LibraryThing member nittnut
Although I have not read the first in this series (Whistling Season) I felt like this book stood on its own just fine. I found it fascinating to read about Butte, still a wild west type town even after WWI. It was not clear to me even at the end that we were meant to take sides. The good guys were
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clearly the miners, but not necessarily their union. There was a clear distinction between the Union and the IWW or wobblies. The IWW was communist and people didn't like them, the "union" was the mine worker's organization - their own. I also thought the references to Wilson and his policies were interesting. I would probably have missed them completely if I hadn't done some reading about W.Wilson and WWI this year.
I thought the author did a great job presenting all the sides and the challenges using one main character who does not have all the information everyone else has. I followed him around and worried about him and was really interested to see where he ended up. I really liked the characters. I think my favorite minor (tee-hee) characters were Hoop and Griff. Morrie is entertaining and pedantic and charming, yet not infallible. I wanted to get to know Grace a little better. I was kind of surprised by the end - not shocked, but a little surprised.
I'm giving this 3.5 stars.
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LibraryThing member creynolds
In 1919, Morris Morgan (from The Whistling Season) ends up back in Montana -- in Butte, where mining is king and he hopes to make lots of money. He gets caught up in the disputes between the mine owners and the miners; he boards with an attractive young widow and two retired Welsh miners; and he
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gets a job at the library which happens to house a miraculous collection of classics. Morrie is a character to remember and love. While not quite as memorable as The Whistling Season, this is another strong book by a skillful writer.
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LibraryThing member KAzevedo
I imagine that Ivan Doig must be a kind, warm and humorous man. Certainly his stories have great warmth and humor and he treats his characters kindly, even those with somewhat poor morals and behaviour. This story is no exception. It continues with another episode in the life of Morrie, the
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wonderous schoolteacher in "The Whistling Season". Morrie meets some quirky denizens of the mining town of Butte, Montana, after the first World War. The characters are not drawn with the detail and depth of the latter book and the story is not nearly as magical. However it is entirely enjoyable and worth reading, especially to experience the life of the copper miners and their struggles against the Anaconda Company.
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LibraryThing member mojomomma
This book is the sequel to Doig's Whistling Season. Once again, our protagonist the smart and slick talking Morgan Llewyllen, aka Morris Morgan alights from the train in Butte, Montana in 1919 in the midst of union struggles with the giant copper company Anaconda. He meets the miners at his
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boardinghouse and through his work with an undertaker and later at the public library. He gets drawn into the union struggle and helps the union write a rallying song. I thought this was rather a weak premise on which to base the entire plot! Of all the things involved in the early unions, surely coming up with a song is a minor issue. Anyway, Morgan escapes Butte just as the Chicago mob is about to catch up with him again, but with his widowed landlady, Grace, on his arm. We are set up for more sequels! I hope the next one has a stronger plot line and the same delightful characters!
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LibraryThing member tututhefirst
I don't read many westerns, but I'm glad I made an exception for this one. Doig has a clear, concise prose that is almost poetic. His ability to paint pictures, draw characters, and weave a story is quite amazing. He tells the tale of Morris Morgan who arrives in Butte with only the clothes on his
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back, who manages to secure a room in the boardinghouse of one Grace Faraday, and who, after working for several weeks as the 'cryer' for a funeral director, finds himself hired as the gopher in the public library. It seems our hero is classically educated and manages to impress the librarian with his knowledge and love of books.

In the meantime, the owners of the copper mine--the major employer in the town-- are trying to bust the union, the miners are anxious about job security, and it appears they may be a past that our hero is dodging. A great story, beautifully written. It certainly whet my appetite for more by this writer.
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LibraryThing member bremmd
Summery: An award-winning and beloved novelist of the American West spins the further adventures of a favorite character, in one of his richest historical settings yet.

“If America was a melting pot, Butte would be its boiling point,” observes Morrie Morgan, the itinerant teacher, walking
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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.
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LibraryThing member laytonwoman3rd
41. [Work Song] by Ivan Doig This is the middle volume of the trilogy that begins with [The Whistling Season] and concludes with [Sweet Thunder]. I read the first novel in 2012, and the third in 2013, having requested an ER copy not realizing the two were connected or that there was another in
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between. [Work Song] tells the story of Morrie Morgan's arrival in Butte, Montana, in 1919, where he hopes to make a fortune and escape his past. But, as well-read and resourceful as he is, even his best-laid plans are not proof against company goons and outside agitators as the miners take a stand against Anaconda Copper’s recent cut in their daily wages, and Morrie finds himself taking sides, against his better judgment. Morrie is one of my favorite characters of all time. He is charming; knowledgeable; good-intentioned but slightly unreliable (he’s apt to pack up and run---he’s done it before). A mining town on the brink of a strike is an odd place to set one, but this is pretty much a comfort read, when all is said and done. I’m fairly sure that I’ll be re-reading all three of these novels one day; they are very easy to settle into. I sure wish Doig could have stuck around and given us more of Morrie.
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LibraryThing member stretch
Work Song by Ivan Doig is set in post World War I era in the copper capital of the US Butte, Montana. Doig beatifully captures the feel and look of Butte in those formative years. Especially the workers strife with Anaconda.

The novel was reliant on the great characterization, but unfortunately a
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little thin on plot. Not that the organization of labor unions isn't an interesting topic, but somewhere Doig lost a bit of focus. The cast of characters was fantastic however and kept the story moving along at a farily brisk pace.

Overall, it's a fun read that should appeal to people who enjoy the British sort of humor. That is, the understated and ironic type, light-hearted and never mean spirited. Recommended as a good summer read.
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