Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #87: The Bartender’s Tale by Ivan Doig

Doig hits another home run! The Bartender’s Tale is a great coming-of-age story peopled with colorful characters against a backdrop filled with history, humor, and pathos.

Once again, Montana plays home to Doig’s tale, this one centered around Tom Harry, famous owner of the Medicine Lodge bar in Gros Ventre and, previously, of the Blue Eagle bar in Fort Peck which had serviced many of the 10,000 employees of the U.S. government in the 1930s brought into that tiny speck of northern Montana when the Fort Peck Dam was built under the auspices of the US Army Corps of Engineers. Tom’s first wife left not long after their son Rusty was born, and the boy spent his first six years being raised in Arizona by an aunt whose sons made life a living hell for the little boy. But then Tom reclaimed Rusty, and father and son dedicated themselves to forging a life around the bar which was the centerpiece of their existence and Gros Ventre’s last refuge, as well. Rusty’s life is happier, but still a lonely one until Zoe moves into town with her parents, and the two children become as one, sharing a total fascination with life that is as exuberant and optimistic as Doig himself.

Tom is getting ready to sell the bar and create a more normal life for himself and his son when Proxy, a former lover from the Fort Peck days, arrives on the scene with a 21-year-old daughter in tow with the same ink-black hair that Tom and Rusty share. Proxy wants Tom to teach their daughter Francine how to run the bar, and ultimately take it over, and life suddenly becomes very complicated for Tom and Rusty. Thrown into the mix is Del, a student of  “lingua Americana,” a “word catcher” from the East who latches on to Tom in hope of getting access to the many and varied characters who have flowed in and around Tom’s life and who represent the last vestiges of a dying language as Montana moves increasingly into the modern era.

Rusty and Zoe are a bridge between those two eras, and are as endearingly clever as Paul Milliron was in Doig’s “The Whispering Season.”  The reader finds oneself yearning for the simpler days of their childhood, and yet sees them growing and changing as the century matures. The Bartender’s Tale is a thoroughly delightful novel as nostalgic for the past as it is hopeful for the future.

Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #85 & 86: Work Song and Sweet Thunder by Ivan Doig

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.