Book Review: Work Song by Ivan Doig

I first met Morrie Morgan in The Whistling Season. In that book he was the gifted teacher in a one-room schoolhouse. Now, ten years later (1919), Morgan is the main character/narrator of his own story, Work Song. He has just arrived in Butte, Montana to begin a new chapter in his life.

Butte is a town sitting on the richest hill in America. It’s full of copper and the mine is right underneath the buildings and the streets. You can see a good drawing of Butte on the cover of the book.

Morgan is not necessarily interested in striking it rich in mining but he believes there may be other ways to earn good money. Within days of arriving in town he finds a good boardinghouse, makes new friends and even finds a job as a Cryer at wakes.

Working at wakes causes Morgan to drink a bit too much so he decides to find some other form of work. He has lots of sklls. He presents himself at the public library so he can study the county directory for companies that may need bookkeepers.

Morgan also asked for Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars in the original Latin. You see Morgan loves books, especially the classics. As he perused the library’s book collection he found himself in “a book lover’s paradise.” There were priceless editions along with the library’s standard books.

As he was admiring these treasures he was confronted by the head librarian and then hired on the spot. He soon became the indispensable assistant to the head librarian, Sandy Sandison. He gradually performs nearly all of Sandy’s duties, including the budgeting and managing the numerous groups who want to use the basement auditorium.

Morgan is delighted when he meets a former student who is now both a teacher and the fiancee of a union leader. He finds himself drawn into the dangerous world of labor relations in this town owned by the Anaconda Mining Company.

The people in this book are on the good side of quirky. Morgan is so intelligent and well read. Sandy Sandison, the head librarian and former rancher, is a larger than life character. A very large man with flowing white hair and beard, he’s known as the Earl of Hell and the Strangler. As a book and library lover I enjoyed all the library scenes in this book.

Charming and spunky  is Rabrab, Morgan’s former student. I also liked Jared, the union leader, a young boy called Russian Famine, and the members of Morgan’s boardinghouse. I even liked Skinner, the local bookie.

I have to tell you that reading this book was like sitting at the kitchen table sixty-some years ago with my grandfather. My grandpa would have been a contemporary of Morgan’s. My grandpa also loved to tell stories of the old days. Many of the phrases used in this book were just like my grandpa’s. Phrases such as “Show me the color of your money” and “Feed that hollow leg of his” and “Are you home there between your ears?” For me, Work Song captured the spirit and flavor of this time period.

There is such a light-heartedness to this book in spite of the serious nature of some of the subjects. I smiled through most of it. And, the writing is rock solid storytelling. It’s definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year.

About the author: I already knew Ivan Doig was a Master Storyteller and he doesn’t disappoint in Work Song. He has an excellent website that includes his biography and reader’s discussion questions. Check it out here: Ivan

I won this book on Shelf Awareness. Thanks to the marketing people at Riverhead Books.

Riverhead Books/Penguin Book Group, 2010  /  My Rating: A+

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7 Responses to Book Review: Work Song by Ivan Doig

  1. This sounds wonderful! I’m definitely putting it on a list to acquire! Thanks for the great review!

  2. stacybuckeye says:

    They had people that were paid to cry at wakes?! What a job. This book looks wonderful. I’m adding it to my ever growing list.

  3. I love quirky characters. I’ve never head any of those phrases, even though my dad was born in 1919.

  4. Tami says:

    I ordered this for the library, but was involved in something else when it arrived. Sounds like I better put a hold on it when it comes back in. Great review.

  5. Barbara says:

    This sounds delightful. I’m very familiar with the phrases you mentioned – ah, the good old days!

  6. Beth F says:

    I am well familiar with those phrases and I love the setting of Montana.(I’ve been to Butte several times.) Okay…. adding to the wish list.

  7. Staci says:

    I think I picked up Whistling Season on audio but turned it back in. My librarian absolutely loves this author too and now I must read his works.

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