I wrote earlier about The Whistling Season and the singular character of Morris Morgan, the erudite and cultured man who wound up in the rough Montana town of Marias Coulee. Morrie was a memorable character from the start, and though the events of that story sent him away from Marias Coulee, Ivan Doig brought him back in Work Song. As important as he was to the first book, we still only saw him through Paul Milliron’s eyes; now we get to see the world through Morrie’s.
Ten years after the events of The Whistling Season, Morrie gets off the train at the go-go town of Butte, Montana, thinking he’ll get an accounting job with the Anaconda Copper Mining Company and start the path to his certain fortune. But little in the town is as direct as the railroad tracks coming and going from the depot. In Butte, you are on one side or the other and even outsiders have to pick, as Morrie learns when he takes a room at Grace Faraday’s boarding house. The sides? Anaconda, which runs the town, or the union, which struggles to represent the miners.
Grace, the young widow of a miner, has two boarders, Griff and Hoop, both veterans of the mine and stalwart union men. They quickly set Morrie straight about “wearing the copper collar”, so he stoutly declares that he won’t work for the Company. Which leaves him jobless and mostly broke, because the trunk with his possessions vanished on the train.
After a brief stint as a professional mourner, Morrie discovers the Butte’s true prize: the public library and its priceless collection of exquisitely bound first editions. As intimidating as the Anaconda Copper Mining Company can be, though, they have nothing on the head librarian, Samuel S. Sandison. Former cattle rancher, book collector, and professional grouch, Sandy is also swayed by anyone who believes as he does in the narrative genius of Robert Louis Stevenson. Morrie easily talks himself into a job, and winds up doing anything Sandison doesn’t want to.
But trouble is coming to Butte. Wage cuts and safety issues put the miners on edge, and Anaconda puts their thugs to work on anyone who might be an outside agitator. Before long, Morrie finds himself dodging strikebreakers and helping the union with an essential job: finding a work song.
In a community subdivided into different nationalities with their own musical traditions, finding a tune that can inspire the miners to pull together is no easy task. Morrie can go into an unconventional classroom (think 3000 feet under the surface), teach them about rhythm, rhyme, and melody, but if they are to be as effective as the Wobblies Little Red Songbook, the words have to come from the miners.
As he did in The Whistling Season, Doig seems to go right to the edge of creating an unwieldy cast of characters, but manages to have each one precisely delineated and in the perfect place to play their roles. Along with a lively young teacher from Morrie’s past, a young union leader toughened in the trenches of World War I, and the towering and haunted Sandison, he includes a starveling boy nicknamed Russian Famine, the fastest thing on two feet in Butte. But Doig is most tender in developing Grace Faraday, the young woman trying to survive on her own in the face of company harassment and her precarious status in a town where unattached females are usually prostitutes. Measuring his worldly ambitions against such people makes Morrie a (slightly) better man, and we are pleased to be along for his self-discovery. And though I haven’t read it yet, Morrie’s journey continues in Sweet Thunder. I have a feeling I will be reviewing it in the near future.
Check the WRL catalogue for Work Song