I reviewed the first novel, The Whistling Season, last year in Cannonball Read IV, and am happy to report that I found Work Song and its sequel Sweet Thunder, to be delightfully worthy successors to the first in this loose trilogy by consummate Montana storyteller Ivan Doig. Instead of the prairie and one-room schoolhouse of The Whistling Season, the backdrop for Work Song and Sweet Thunder is the battleground of the labor unions vs. the huge Anaconda Copper Mining Company in the aftermath of the Great War. Since the second and third books are nearly continuous, I will review them together here.
It is 1919, and we find our hero Morris Morgan returned to Montana after a 10-year hiatus, this time seeking his fortune in the bustling copper town of Butte, known at the time as “the Richest Hill on Earth.” His trunk containing all his worldly possessions goes wayward on the railroad, and so he starts out with little in his pocket but fantasies of Gold Rush-style wealth filling his head. The fantasies prove to be short-lived, but Morrie’s widowed landlady Grace soon becomes the apple of his eye, and he ends up siding with the sorely aggrieved copper miners against the all-powerful Anaconda company. Along the way, Morrie encounters a host of lively characters like the speedy “Russian Famine,” the wizened old miners Hoop and Griff, company thugs Eel Eyes and Typhoon Tolliver, a hot-headed IWW organizer named Quinn, the mysterious Highliner, editorial hatchetman Cutthroat Cartwright, his vivacious former student Rabrab, and many others. But it is the larger-than-life Samuel S. Sandison, a former rancher turned chief librarian of Butte (who is also known as “The Strangler” among other sobriquets), who becomes a driving force in Morrie’s increasingly complicated life.
Morrie’s jobs range from funeral home “crier” at the wakes of Irish victims of mine disasters, to Sandison’s factotum (and accomplice) at the library, to the unofficial mouthpiece of the union’s battle against Anaconda. It is only natural that in his many roles, he manages to attract the deadly attentions of hired Anaconda goons, rival bootleggers, and the Chicago mobsters who know his true identity and from whom he fled a dozen years earlier. But it is Sandison and Morrie’s shared worship of all things literary that was, for me, the pure joy of thes novels. Doig manages to cleverly introduce pithy Latin sayings, limericks and song, quotes from Shakespeare and a score of other poets, novelists, philosophers and educators, even mini-lectures ranging from mythology to musical composition, without ever once being heavy-handed or ponderous or boring. In fact, I came away feeling, well, educated! Imagine!
The tale Doig presents of the real-life three-way battle between the mining union, the IWW (“Wobblies”) and the Rockefeller-owned Anaconda company, at the time the fourth largest company in the world and acknowledged “colonial owner of the state of Montana,” as one historian put it, is thrilling enough. He also manages to give us an intimate picture of the many immigrant populations that poured into cities like Butte, each seeking to hold onto their cultural identities while struggling to become Americans. And he gives us a host of unforgettable heroes to root for. With his lively wit, his profound sense of history, and his literary prowess, Doig has given us a truly irresistible combination.