'The music of men's lives'

  • Anaconda Company smelter, Butte, Montana.


Work Song
Ivan Doig
288 pages, hardcover: $25.95.
Riverhead Books, 2010.

"My train journey had brought me across the Montana everyone thinks of, mile upon hypnotic mile of rolling prairie with snowcapped peaks in the distance, and here, as sudden and surprising as a lost city of legendary times, was a metropolis of nowhere. ..." In his latest work of historical fiction, Ivan Doig focuses on itinerant teacher Morrie Morris, a charming character who appeared in his earlier novel, The Whistling Season.

Morrie steps off the train in post-WWI Butte, Mont., the copper-mining capital of the world, hoping to make a living as a bookkeeper for the Anaconda Company. He takes a room at a boarding house but soon finds that the "richest hill on earth" is as politically unstable as it is physically dangerous. Quickly abandoning the notion of working for The Man, he becomes entangled with the union instead. Soon he's working at the public library under the supervision of a gruff former cattleman who goes by the moniker Earl of Hell.

With tensions between the company goons and rabble-rousing Wobbly agitators spiraling out of control, the union desperately needs to boost the morale of its 10,000 or so miners. The tale unfolds like a classic David-and-Goliath confrontation, describing how a fractured community slowly comes together.

The plot keeps the book humming along, but it's Doig's masterful prose that makes it memorable. Here's his description of a fidgety boy nicknamed Russian Famine: "Skinny as the sticks of kindling in the woodbox ... in dusty patched pants and a hand-me-down shirt," he zips around the city "gaunt as an unfed greyhound." The mass of Wobblies and their foes are sometimes sadly one-dimensional, but the individual characters live and breathe.

Doig's prose is old-fashioned, almost Dickensesque, and it gives the book a big heart. His world stands like a well-built wooden table, sturdy and beautiful, without need of ornamentation. From the onset the reader feels convinced that nothing too terrible will happen, and yet the lack of mayhem does not cause the story to lose its shine. History buffs, lovers of fine prose, and anyone after a solid and finely crafted story will enjoy this novel.  

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