'The music of men's lives'

  • Anaconda Company smelter, Butte, Montana.

    FSA/OWI
 

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.  

High Country News Classifieds
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • FEATURES DIRECTOR - HIGH COUNTRY NEWS
    High Country News, an award-winning news organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Features Director to join our editorial...
  • GENERAL MANAGER
    The Board of UYWCD seeks a new GM to manage operations & to implement our robust strategic plan. Details at www.upperyampawater.com. EOE
  • IN TUCSON, FOR SALE: A BEAUTIFUL, CLASSIC MID-CENTURY MODERN HOME
    designed by architect David Swanson in 1966. Located a block from Saguaro National Forest, yet minutes to Downtown and the UofA campus, 3706 sqft, 6...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Friends of the San Juans is seeking a new leader guide our efforts to protect and restore the San Juan Islands and the Salish...
  • 80 ACRES
    straddles North Platte Fishery, Wyoming. Legal access 2 miles off 1-80. Call 720-440-7633.
  • IMPROVED LOT
    Private road, hillside, views. Well, pad, septic, 99 sq.ft. hut. Dryland permaculture orchard. Wildlife. San Diego--long growing season
  • UNIQUE INVESTMENT OPPORTUNITY
    Profitable off-the-grid business located 2 miles from Glacier National Park. Owner has 6 years operating experience. Seeking investor or partner for business expansion and enhancement....
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...