Readers who fell in love with Morrie Morris in “The Whistling Season” will welcome him back to Montana in Ivan Doig’s latest adventure.
“Work Song” finds our hero — now a first-person narrator — taking on the name Morris Morgan and arriving in Butte during its post-World War I heyday and 10 years after the events in “The Whistling Season.” He’s drawn there by the copper mines that give the city its nickname — “the Richest Hill on Earth.” “Downtown Butte, set into the slope of the Hill like the till in a cash register, was as busy as the streets could hold,” writes Doig.
But Morgan’s get-rich quick schemes are soon put on hold when he finds room and board in the home of a young widow with a meaningful name — Grace Faraday. It’s there he meets two veteran miners from Wales named Wynford Griffith and Maynard Hooper. Griff and Hoop, as they insist on being called, soon plug Morgan into the unionized world of mining.
The pages turn quickly after that, filled with characters Doig vividly describes. Like Samuel Sandison, the local librarian with a secret past who hires Morgan to take inventory and keep the books: “ .æ.æ. the man frowning down at me had considerable girth at the waist and narrowed at the chest and shoulders; like the terrain around us, he sloped.”
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Or fleet-of-foot schoolboy Wladislaw, who is referred to — even by his teacher — by his nickname “Russian Famine”: “Gaunt as an unfed greyhound, the hollow-cheeked boy did resemble a living ghost from starvation times on some distant steppe.”
Doig’s love of language — more specifically, storytelling — is apparent throughout the book. Morgan’s job in the library surrounds him with masters of the craft, from Kipling to Shakespeare to Stevenson. And the book’s plot centers on the “Work Song” of the title. Morgan volunteers to teach the miners’ union enough about rhythm and meter so they can create one to foster solidarity as they square off with the Anaconda Copper Mining Co.
In the end, of course, “Work Song” — like “The Whistling Season” before it — is a love story. It’s richly imagined and beautifully paced. And it’s not hard to imagine it as a movie someday. Johnny Depp would make a fine Morgan and Nicole Kidman could wear Faraday’s apron. But even if that never happens, readers could do much worse than losing themselves in Doig’s words, none more poignant than these: “A goodbye to a good woman costs a piece of the soul.”
“Work Song” by Ivan Doig (Riverhead Books, 288 pages, $25.95)