three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
48-Sept-Oct-2010
By: 
Ivan Doig
user_rating: 
0

A-Work SongMontana native and historian Ivan Doig has staked out his territory in more than a dozen books. Work Song, set in post–World War I Butte, Montana, is the sequel to his best-selling The Whistling Season ( 4 of 5 Stars Selection Sept/Oct 2006). Both novels feature the lovable rogue Morrie Morgan.

The Story: In 1919, Butte, Montana, was much more than a sleepy prairie town. It fed the country’s insatiable need for raw materials from the area’s copper mines and dealt with the "Red Scare" that had seized the nation in the aftermath of World War I. Morrie Morgan, a University of Chicago-educated journeyman, and Sam Sandison, an irascible rancher with a love for books, find themselves, along with the union and the ominous Wobblies, embroiled in a fight with the Anaconda Copper Mining Company. The characters are compelling, but none so much as Doig’s industrialized Butte: "Here, as sudden and surprising as a lost city of legendary times," Morgan muses, "was a metropolis of nowhere: nearly a hundred thousand people atop the earth’s mineral crown, with nothing else around but the Rocky Mountains and the witnessing sky."
Riverhead. 288 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 9781594487620

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Work Song is ... as [an] enjoyable and subtly thought-provoking a piece of fiction as you’re likely to pick up this summer. It’s a book that can be appreciated just for the quality of the prose and the author’s adherence to the sturdy conventions of old-fashioned narrative or for Doig’s sly gloss on Western genre fiction and unforced evocation of our current condition--or, better yet, for all those things." Tim Rutten

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"With deft strokes of storytelling, Doig paints a vivid scene. ... Doig has delivered another compelling tale about America, epic as an Old West saga but as fresh and contemporary as the news." Tim McNulty

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Though sometimes his prose veers toward the clichéd (‘I felt like an author drawing a scene to a successful close’), not one stitch unravels in this intricately threaded narrative. ... As the title suggests, music is as alive in these pages as it has been in any of Doig’s previous books, ennobling the miners in their struggle." Joanna Hershon

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 3.5 of 5 Stars
"What I really love about Doig’s writing is Doig’s writing. You won’t find a lazy sentence in 275 pages of story, where words often manage to simultaneously inform, entertain and surprise. ... Like his hero, Mr. Doig turns out to be not merely an aficionado of history, but a friendly teacher who genuinely wishes to infect his students with a love of books and learning." Karen Sandstrom

Washington Post 0.5 of 5 Stars
"Not to put too fine a point on it, [the novel] is the worst work of fiction to cross my desk in years. ... All in all, take away a couple of modestly quotable paragraphs and Work Song is mawkish, corny, clumsy and uninviting." Jonathan Yardley

Critical Summary

Every once in a while, critics are so divided on their opinion of a novel as to leave readers scratching their heads in bewilderment. Witness Work Song. Sure, its plot is a little thin, and it’s "history lite." Yet most critics praise Doig, a veteran writer of the West, for his ability to weave a story out of the familiar Montana countryside--or his panoramic, loving portrayal of those landscapes--and they explain Doig’s hold on readers as the result of an avuncular blend of history and nostalgia. On the other hand, respected literary critic Jonathan Yardley has written thousands of reviews, few of them--by his own admission--so scathing and pointedly negative as his response to Work Song. One wonders at the gulf between "subtly thought-provoking" (Los Angeles Times) and "world-class dud" (Washington Post).