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Work Song, Ivan Doig

2010/08/10

Readers of Doig’s previous novel, The Whistling Season, will immediately recognize Morris Morgan, the quirky, knowledgeable schoolteacher who mentors young Paul until Paul’s father marries Morrie’s “sister,” Rose. After wandering through travels for several years, Morrie finds himself back in Montana, in the small mining town of Butte, Colorado. Morrie’s flamboyant speech carries over into a rich, descriptive narrative, beginning with a lost trunk and the search for lodging and gainful employment. The trunk remains lost, but Morrie finds himself boarding with the Widow Faraday and two retired miners named Griff and Hoop, all three of whom are ardent critics of the mining company, Anaconda, which runs the town. For work, Morrie starts out as a hired cryer for the local funeral home, but once word gets out about his extensive knowledge and book-learning, the crochety old librarian engages him in a literary debate, then hires him to manage the calendar and other assorted duties. And before long, things are astir in the town, with miners’ union meetings held in the basement of the library and Morrie drafted by a former student to help compose a work song for the miners protest.

One of the most amusing parts of this novel is the interaction between Morrie and his boss, the self-appointed librarian, Samuel Sandison, who once owned a massive ranch, and still owns a beautiful collection of books which he has loaned to the library. In one chapter, Sandison gripes about dealing with library trustees — “I thought it was hard to keep track of a few thousand cows — that was nothing compared to this outfit” — and in another enforces the library code of conduct when the miners who are on strike are looking for somewhere to mingle.

Though this is an excellent piece of historical fiction, I think that Doig’s previous novel has more widespread appeal. Morrie’s literature-strewn narrative can become tedious at times, especially when he is trading quotes with various characters. Griff and Hoop add levity and humor, and Morrie and Grace’s awkward courtship lightens the mood. Recommended for those who have read and enjoyed “The Whistling Season,” as well as those who don’t mind wading through the idiosyncrasies of an over-learned narrator.

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