Book review: ‘Work Song’ by Ivan Doig


In one of the memorable broadcast talks that did so much to confirm the late Patrick Kavanagh’s reputation as a major poet, Seamus Heaney cannily observed that while the onetime County Monaghan farmer’s focus was — in the best sense — parochial, his sensibility never was provincial.

Something similar could be said of the best American writing among the works we tend — for no better reason than convenience — to classify as “regional literature.” Ivan Doig is an exemplary regional voice in American letters, which simply means he is a very fine writer who has chosen to site his work in the West, particularly in Montana, where he was born and grew up. “Work Song” is his 10th novel — a sequel to his bestselling “The Whistling Season” — and as enjoyable and subtly thought-provoking a piece of fiction as you’re likely to pick up this summer. It’s a book that can be appreciated just for the quality of the prose and the author’s adherence to the sturdy conventions of old-fashioned narrative or for Doig’s sly gloss on Western genre fiction and unforced evocation of our current condition — or, better yet, for all those things.

“Work Song” is set in the strife-torn year of 1919. World War I is newly over, and its veterans have returned to their jobs. The “Red Scare” has begun, and conflict between capital and labor is endemic with the radical International Workers of the World vying with more traditional trade unions for workers’ loyalty. Doig again sets his story in Montana, but not the familiar “big sky country” with its rolling short grass prairies to the east and deep forested river valleys to the west. This story is played out entirely in the industrialized cities of Butte and Anaconda — then the copper mining and smelting centers of a burgeoning U.S. economy.


This is the unfamiliar urban West, and the ranchers, farmers, cowboys and Native Americans who populate most fiction about the region are mentioned only in passing. Butte in those years was called “the richest hill on earth” and its people came from all the immigrant groups that had left their countries to do this nation’s hard work, particularly underground — the Irish, Welsh, Cornishmen and by 1919 the Ruthenians. (In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Butte had the second-largest Irish population outside Dublin.)

Readers of “The Whistling Season” will be happy to reacquaint themselves with its engaging protagonist and first-person narrator, Morris (Morrie) Morgan, an itinerant school teacher, University of Chicago-educated polymath and all-around charmer. (It’s not necessary to have read the earlier novel, as “Work Song” artfully provides all the essential details.) The name, of course, is simply one of Morrie’s disguises, for he’s a fugitive twice over — once from the Chicago gambling syndicate he and his boxer brother crossed and again from the Montana hamlet where he taught school and which he fled to disentangle himself from an impossible romance with his dead brother’s widow, Rose, who locals believed was his sister.

In the intervening 10 years, Morrie has traveled the world and now has drifted back to Montana, partly in hope of recharging his finances in Butte, partly for proximity to Rose, now married. Unfortunately, the railroad’s loss of Morrie’s trunk means he has arrived in town carrying only a single satchel. That plus his having no visible means of support quickly attracts the attention of a pair of Anaconda Co. goons, who are convinced he’s a “red” and “up to something.” They’ll dog his heels through much of the book. One of this novel’s pleasures is the rich cast of secondary characters Doig effortlessly sketches into his narrative. Grace, the attractive young widow who runs the boarding house where Morrie lands and the two elderly Welsh miners who are her other lodgers are among them. So too the unctuous Scandinavian mortician to whom Morrie applies for his first job in Butte in this memorable example of his charm:

“‘My funerary experience is not vast,’ I admitted, ‘yet I have been fortunate enough to be an observer at some historically solemn occasions. I happened to witness the funeral procession of Edvard Grieg to name one.’

“‘In Oslo?’ He straightened up like a stork on the alert.’

“‘There under the Scandinavian sky of heroes, with his own music resounding like the heartbeat of the fjords.’

“‘What did they lay him in?’ he whispered.

“‘Rosewood,’ came to mind.

“‘The diamond of woods,’ Peterson uttered with reverence. . .”

Morrie is hired as a “cryer,” the funeral home’s official representative at the nightly wakes held by its mostly Irish clientele. It’s a job that provides him with free drink and food and an introduction to the local miners and their union. Soon, however, he moves on to a position in the town library, which is run by Sam Sandison, a grandly imperious, bibliomaniacal ex-rancher, who secured the job by loaning his own vast collection of fine and rare books to form the nucleus of the public collection. The white-bearded Sandison is a figure of fear to the locals who, for reasons they refuse to discuss, refer to him as the “Earl of Hell.” He makes Morrie his assistant, partly because Morrie’s a walking literary encyclopedia and partly because his bookkeeping skills are useful to a boss who’s been fiddling the budget to finance his passion for rare books.


Before long, Morrie — who simply wants to stay out of harm’s way and hit a few of the wagers he likes to place — has encountered an ex-student of his, now herself a teacher, and her fiery fiancé, leader of the local miners’ union. They quickly enmesh Morrie in the never-ending struggle with the company and the vicious competition with the unseen but omnipresent Wobblies. Before the story resolves itself in a comprehensive but somewhat breakneck conclusion, the significance of the title will become clear, and Sandison — who turns out to be a man with a terrible secret and a stricken conscience — will come to play an unexpected, deeply satisfying role. To reveal more would spoil things, but keep in mind the year 1919 and the national pastime.

Morrie and Sanderson are, in some ways, a knowing inversion of the knight-errant, gun-slinging drifters and ranchers whom one finds in genre Westerns, while the organized miners in “Work Song” subtly play against the individualistic types that fill those conventional pages. The unseen antagonists in the Anaconda Co. executive suites high above Butte’s turbulent streets manage to evoke something of our own financially troubled times. Doig, however, is too good a novelist to insist that those subtexts do more than whisper for themselves, and that tact makes “Work Song” a pleasure to read.