08 November 2010

Singing not whistling

When I saw the name Ivan Doig among the new books at the Northfield library, I had good memories of a couple of his books. When I looked them up, it turns out I've read four of his books in the last 3 years. When I checked out Work Song, I had no idea exactly what I was getting into, because while Doig's books tend to be historical fiction, they range widely in that pasture.

It turns out that Work Song is a sequel to the best of the books I read, The Whistling Season.

And, like The Whistling Season, this book is just a story about a few people. It's set in Butte, Montana just after World War I. It turns out that Butte in 1919 was a multi-ethnic city of 100,000. Copper mining was just beginning to wind down. The post-war red scare was in full swing as was union activity. The Golden Age of paternalistic mega-corporations was just past its prime.

Into this scene, the University of Chicago scholar, gambling huckster, wood splitter, and school master from the earlier book, Morris Morgan, appears. He says without offering any details that he spent the decade between the two stories in Tasmania. He's unclear about what drew him back to Montana. The Chicago gamblers, who chased him to the frontier, remember him, and he's promised not to go near the woman with whom he ran from Chicago.

Whatever plans he had are thwarted when the railroad loses his trunk and he arrives in Butte with a stachel of clothes and necessaries. He ends up, luckily for a classically educated big city guy, with a job in the Butte Public Library (he was found reading Caeser in Latin by the classically inclined head librarian). The story revolves around Morris, the landlady of his boarding house, two of his fellow boarders, one of his former students (who is teaching in Butte) and her fiance (a miners' union leader) and the suspicious corporate enforcers trying to identify Wobblies (see IWW).

Like The Whistling Season, this book is about the characters. Unfortunately, the characters in Work Song aren't as well-drawn as the ones I remember from The Whistling Season. But, it has been a bit over two years since I read it. There's a bit of suspense and adventure, but no big events. The times in which the book is set deserved a couple big events. But they're not in the story. The time and place are not evoked as vibrantly as Davis and Winspear drew ancient Rome and 1930s London. But it was a pleasure to read about fairly normal life. No murders. No huge improbabilities. Just some colorful characters bumbling through life like most of us do.

I recommend reading The Whistling Season and Work Song as a pair. Then, I recommend choosing some others of Doig's books and trying them out. Have you read Work Song? Have you read other books by Ivan Doig? What did you think? Write and tell this little bit of the world how you reacted to them.

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