Work Song

By Ivan Doig

Riverhead. 288 pp. $25.95

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By Karen Sandstrom


In his new book, Seattle novelist Ivan Doig delivers a concentrated dose of the learned and genial Morrie Morgan, whom readers first met in the 2006 crowd-pleaser

The Whistling Season

, in which Morrie found himself teaching in a small Montana schoolhouse.

Work Song is more Morrie's tale this time as protagonist and narrator of a story set in 1919 Butte, Mont., where he has come with hopes of earning a few bucks from the copper mine with his bookkeeping skills.

But on his first night in the boardinghouse of the comely widow Grace Faraday, he learns that the mining corporation, Anaconda, holds the entire town in its clutches.

Corporate bigwigs turn a blind eye to the dangers faced by the mineworkers, and fight their every attempt to unionize.

Residents, therefore, regard outsiders with suspicion, so Morrie sides with the working folk rather than seek work with Anaconda. He ends up stumbling into a job at the local library.

Gruff, impatient, and disinclined to suffer fools, librarian Samuel Sandison recognizes in Morrie a keen and literate intellect and he makes him his right-hand man. The job provides a steady income, but money is far from his only worry.

Tensions between Anaconda and its laborers are heating up, and soon Morrie becomes the key to strengthening the bond among the miners, whose varied nationalities create rifts that weaken their cause.

Always the thinker, Morrie decides that music will give the workers the oomph to stand up to new pressures from the bosses. But it's harder than you'd think to organize the composing and selection of the "work song" that they hope will fuel them like Popeye's spinach.

Thin fiber for a plot? Inarguably. One of the throwback qualities of Work Song is how its texture puts one in mind of an old "let's-put-on-a-show" musical. That feels a bit at odds with a novel starring a character who reads classics in Latin, though this is hardly a strange idea. The trick is to stop expecting great depth, and just revel in Doig's joyride through American sports and labor history by way of his winsome characters and a breezy tale.

He infuses Work Song with knowing passages about the tragedy-flecked mining industry. He tosses in baseball and prizefighting, drawing a slick parallel between the "Black Sox" scandal of the 1919 World Series and something much closer to home where Morrie is concerned.

What I really love about Doig's writing is Doig's writing. You won't find a lazy sentence in 288 pages of story, where words often manage to simultaneously inform, entertain, and surprise.

In an early passage, Doig uses Morrie's reading of a newspaper's headlines to quickly contextualize the times.

"The front page could barely hold all the calamitous items there were to post," Morrie tells us.

" 'ATT'Y GENERAL WARNS OF DOMESTIC BOLSHEVIKS' . . . 'BUTTE BREWERY SHUTTERED BY DRY LAW' . . . America, in that agitated time; not merely a nation, but something like a continental nervous condition."

Like his hero, Doig turns out to be not merely an aficionado of history, but also a friendly teacher who genuinely wishes to infect his students with a love of books and learning. Yes, Work Song is more entertainment than art.

But it will make you feel smart, maybe even a little smug, when you take it to the beach.

Karen Sandstrom is former books editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.