Books and Beyond

Ivan Doig has been an author on my reading list for a long time. I knew he had a Ph.D. in history from the University of Washington, much of his writing was about the western United States, and I’ve liked his titles. I set “Prairie Nocturne” back on the library shelf when I chose “Work Song.” I sensed that once I started with a Doig book, I could be hooked for all 16 of them.

Music is good for me, and you could say that the book builds up to the work song for the miners in Butte, Montana. But each of the 12 chapters introduces many other parts of Morris Morgan’s life during the year 1919. On page two he writes “The most precipitous chapter of life always begins before we quite know it is underway.” All he is doing on this day is get off the train in Butte for the job he plans to have doing the math on ledgers for the Anaconda Mining Company.

By page five I knew that a love story was going on. I liked the main character Morrie already, so why wouldn’t he be attractive to most women, including Grace Farraday, the widow who owns the boarding house where he will stay?

Another enticement for me was the importance of the library in Butte. If you were writing a drama for the book, much of it could take place indoors — in the library and in the boarding house where Morrie stays and gets to know Grace. It was easy to find myself in the library with Morrie and with his boss Mr. Sandison. In the evening I sat at the boarding house supper table with Morrie and two other me — Hoop and Griff — while they waited for Grace to bring their supper to the table. Sometimes at a meal they feel the blast of dynamite taking place underneath them.

A conversation at this table made Morrie change his mind and not work for the mining company after all.

Copper mining is the work being done by Finns, Irish, Cornish, Serbs, and Italians in Butte. If their wages are enough, they tend to try for a good life with their families, and enjoy the annual Miners Day. If they have trouble with their bosses at the Anaconda Mining Company, they would rather work that out — even perhaps a strike, than let the Wobblies having too much power. Morrie’s first job in the library is to oversee the many groups who come in for meetings in the basement. However, he ends up keeping the ledger here. Sandison’s personal book collection becomes important when Morrie helps the miners as they show strength to their bosses at the mining company. Sandison is a reader, too, with a favorite poet the same as one of mine — Robert Louis Stevenson. As a child I memorized lines from “The Swing.”

How do you like to go up in a swing,

Up in the air so blue?

Oh, I do think it’s the pleasantest thing

Ever a child could do!

At times Morrie suspects that Sandison is on the wrong side, but because he liked Robert Louis Stevenson, Morrie keeps his mind open to understand and even like Sandison.

Music as a theme is woven throughout the book. Morrie goes to a Welsh church with the two friends who also stay at the boardinghouse. The preacher’s sermon is about the moral issues the miners and mining company face. That’s a relevant and earthly topic. But when the choir sings, Morrie writes “Music makes me almost willing to believe in heaven” (p. 74).

As I reread the book, I realized there was enough here for at least a one-semester history course — all the ways that mining has figured into our history. Some of my ancestors in Pennsylvania were coal miners at the Rockhill Iron and Coal Company in Huntingdon County. I’d like to learn more about them too.

Most of the uncertainties in “Work Song” come to a satisfactory conclusion at the end of the book. The work song itself is beautiful, with the lines:

Those who mine are all one race

Born and bred ‘neath a tunnel brace;

Down there deep we’re all one kind,

All one blood, all of one mind.

I back you and you back me.

All one song in unity. (p. 266)

The miners singing the song realize that even with their differences (they all came to Montana as immigrants from other countries), to succeed as miners they needed to be one and not divide up as the Cornish, Finns, Italians, Serbs, and Irish with meaningless tiffs between them.

As the book closes, Morrie and Grace make a big change in their lives. Can you guess what it is?

Hours at the Marshall-Lyon County Library are 9:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday.