Montana Serves as Backdrop for Mining Novel

By Behe, Rege | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, August 15, 2010 | Go to article overview

Montana Serves as Backdrop for Mining Novel


Behe, Rege, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


In each of Ivan Doig's 10 novels, he's slipped in a song or two. His new book, set in 1919 in the then-booming mining community of Butte, Mont., takes this theme a bit further, if by title alone: "Work Song."

"Give me the anthem and everybody else can have the army," he says, with a laugh, from his home in Seattle. "The notion of the work song does go back and back, and it certainly creeps into my fiction. ... I find it a way for the voice of the book to be a troubadour's voice every so often."

Doig, 71, is a Montana native whose fiction mainly has been set in his native state. Long before David Letterman, Whoopi Goldberg, Jeff Bridges and other celebrities moved there, the Treasure State was known for its ranches and rich mineral reserves. "Work Song" taps into the region's history by way of the author's research -- Doig says he and his wife, Carol, spent endless hours at the Montana Historical Society in Helena -- and by invoking what he calls the "historical laws of gravity: what circumstances were at the time that my characters have to exist in."

"Researching something like Butte, there's a lot of anecdotal history as well as things like the mine inspector's reports," he says. "There are a lot of small historical details I was able to pick up."

For example the character of Grace, the proprietor of a boarding home, was culled from a single sentence about a woman who sold sandwiches out of a bucket to miners. But the book's protagonist, Morrie Morgan, is of the author's own invention. Morgan, who first appeared in Doig's novel "The Whistling Season" in a supporting role, was too compelling a character to not write about again. In "Work Song," Morgan -- a Renaissance man of sorts who has ended up in Montana to escape the wrath of Chicago mobsters for fixing a boxing match -- is cast into a rift between miners and the Anaconda Copper Mining Co. He is charged with writing a song to rally the miners and counter a tune written by the Wobblies, the Communist organizers who threaten to further drive apart the workers and the company.

"He's meant to be a little mysterious," Doig says of Morgan. "He's pretty interesting to work with, given his flights of language.

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