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DOIG NEVER FAILS TO PRODUCE GOOD WORK
on January 31, 2018
To say that Ivan Doig was a great “Western” writer, as is often done, seems a slight to me. He was, in fact, a great writer who lived and wrote in the West but he was much more. His work is literary genius regardless of the genre and if there’s doubt, read “Work Song.”
Doig tells us of an itinerate man arriving in Butte, Montana, needing a job. Morrie Morgan has no money, his belongings are lost, and he has nothing but his initiative to exist on. First he finds work at a mortuary as “crier” at the numerous wakes that are held in a town known for the number of people who die there. Then he goes to work at a library under the directions of an eccentric bibliophile who stocks the library shelves with his own collection of valuable old books.
But wait, that’s only part of the story. Butte is the copper mining capital of the world and, in 1919, the world of mining featured greedy owners, ferocious labor organizers, and beat down miners who exhibited their pluck with determination, neither buying the guile of the men in the copper towers, nor accepting the equally disingenuous bluster of the labor goons. Morgan falls into the camp of the miners, trying to help find a justice that will smooth their hardscrabble lives.
Doig, who died in 2015, espoused the belief that quality writers can not only ground their work in a specific area and language, but can, at the same time, write about life. That’s why his sixteen books all resonate with everyday happenings in the West where he lived, while depicting the broader picture of life in general with such clarity. Using Morris as his narrator to bridge the gap between an unbending mining company, outside agitators, and victimized miners is a brilliant act of characterization that reflects his conviction.
Characterization is the strong point of the novel, although Doig didn’t overload the reader with a cast of thousands. He certainly had them available but, instead, we meet a couple of retired plucky miners, a skinny waif, a pair of company goons, an attractive landlady, the peculiar boss at a remarkable library, and a former student who is now a sage union leader. These few brilliantly depicted characters were all Doig needed to get his story told. He never even brought a company executive from the copper tower for us to meet.
Doig will be missed but his work lives on. Just pick any book he has written and settle in for an insightful and enjoyable read. His legacy will exist because of his formable talent and skill as a marvelous storyteller.
Schuyler T Wallace
Author of TIN LIZARD TALES