Book Review: “Work Song” by Ivan Doig

July 8, 2010

Editor’s Note: As you can probably tell, I’m digging myself out from under an Everest of reading backlog caused by my recent European exodus. I have things to say that don’t involve books, but until I get my duties discharged in the review department, this is what you’re getting for a bit.

The third in a series of novels following the adventures and misadventures of Morrie Morris, Ivan Doig’s newest yarn maintains his hallmark breezy, historically-rich Western style, even if the payoff isn’t terribly memorable.

Morris stumbles into Butte, Montana, in its post-WWI heyday, trying to escape the shadows of his past. He lodges in a boarding house run by the smart-talking, tough, and handsome widow Grace Faraday. Her perspective, like those of nearly all of Butte’s residents, is framed by a singular, larger-than-life corporate hydra: the Anaconda Company, which spearheaded the mining operations on the ‘world’s richest hill’ of copper. The mining men and miner’s wives, the cafes and mouthpiece newspaper—it’s like the town of Butte exists as a support network for the the juggernaut mining company.

Morris’ first employment attempt in Butte results in a farcical stint working for a local mortuary. This translates into surreal whisky-fueled all-nighters at wakes in the Irish part of town and provides Doig a good opportunity to introduce us to some foreshadowing in the shapes of several hardened but goodhearted union organizers. The whole funerary thing mercifully over, Morris moves on to a more plausible employment: at the library, under the blazing eye of Sam Sandison, who is, according to some local residents, possibly the devil.

Cue some blasts from the past. This is, recall, the third book in a series. There’s the chipper former student who provides spunk and, well, that’s about it, though she is conveniently married to the (darkening clouds of uh-oh!) head union agitator. There’s also Morris’ inability to escape his weird, gambling fraud past–they always seem to find him, even if this is the 1910s in rural Montana.

But never mind that. That feels like necessary housekeeping. What’s fun are the new ideas and people. ‘Work Song’ feels comfortable in its own skin. Doig is inventive (but not too inventive), his characters quirky (but not exasperatingly quirky). Combine Doig’s training as a historian and his command of the anecdotal, and it can be occasionally uncanny just how lolling and self-confident the narrative can be.

Sometimes the story wanders too far into a mineshaft, sometimes it holds a singular note about workers’ rights just a bit too long. Sometimes Doig’s earnest attention to tying into the previous novels wears thin. Where Doig shines in Work Song is in illuminating new ideas and folks: the real-life empire of the Anaconda mining company, the mercurial eruptions of Sam Sandison, a wiggly youth they call Russian Famine, a quick look into early 20th-century slang. It almost seems like he needs to set himself free of the shackles of a continuing series, and give us what he does best: gorgeous glimpses into the landscapes and humanity of the American West.

LibraryThing Early Reviewer Program

My many thanks again to LibraryThing for their Early Reviewer program, as well as Riverhead Books. Work Song was released in the United States on June 29, 2010.

LibraryThing Early Reviewers Program

3.5 stars

One Comment

  1. Kylie Flink says:

    Thats great stuff you’ve written up on this blog. Have been hunting for reviews on this all over. Nice work

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