Itinerant teacher and perennial charmer Morrie Morgan returns to the 1919 copper-mining center of Butte, Montana. There he meets retired Welsh twins, a comely landlady, and a Russian waif and encounters the seething ferment of an iron-fisted mining company, radical union agitators, and beleaguered miners.
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.
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.
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 !
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.
Morris stumbles into Butte, Montana, in its post-WWI heyday, trying to 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.
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 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.
The novel was reliant on the great characterization, but unfortunately a 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.
“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.
"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.
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 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.
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.
Readable but with a few plot holes and strains on the suspension of disbelief. The setting is the star. Good depiction of Butte, even the faint echo I grew up with.
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.