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Southwest Montana’s Writer Historian Ivan Doig

morrieI am a hypocrite. I am very proud of my own vocabulary. Sometimes if I write what I think is a very good sentence with lots of elaborate words, I will read it again and again, congratulating myself on my own cleverness. When I read, however, I much prefer things that are blunt and realistic. I enjoy reading poetry, and poetic prose, but it better be the likes of Dick Hugo, Bill Kittredge or Norman Maclean. The sort that socks you in the gut.  This has always complicated my reading of Ivan Doig. His triad of books detailing the Montana misadventures of Morris Morgan (which for want of a better description I have decided to dub the “Morrie Trilogy”) could best be described as a writer’s love letter to words. Or, to use a description more in keeping with the tone of the book ‘a wordsmith’s missive of absolute affection to verbose verbiage.’ In the second two books-Work Song, and Sweet Thunder-Doig writes from the point of view of the main character, Morris Morgan. This choice (while a good one) inevitable leads to flowery, unnecessarily elaborate prose and utterly unrealistic dialogue.

That being said, Doig has done something extraordinary with these books. The trilogy very accurately captures the first few decades of the 1900s, a period of great transition in the United States. While Whistling Season (the first book) focusses on the rural agriculture of high plains Montana, the next two move us into Butte, one of the most important urban industrial centers of the west. Both books center on the Anaconda Copper Company’s dominance of the state, perhaps the most important theme of 20th Century Montana history. Work Song addresses labor relations, and the Union’s fight against the Company. Sweet Thunder takes a slightly different tack by exploring the Company’s near monopoly of the press. Doig carefully incorporates a great many details-both significant and trivial-which add to the accuracy of the books.

Given the subject matter, it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine a bleak, gritty, noir-ish trilogy. Doig does something entirely different. In book review language, Doig has written a delightful romp through Butte in its heyday. He has festooned the playful writing with colorful characters. The Sweet Thunder cast includes the fastidious Morrie, level-headed Grace, a pair of retired Welsh miners (who aren’t related but look the same), a street-urchin called Russian Famine, and a doleful Editor-in-Chief. Morrie lives in the dilapidated mansion of a comically gruff vigilante-turned-librarian who embezzles library funds to build a collection of priceless books. This is Dickens-Lite. You are never quite sure if you are reading a social commentary or a social comedy. For that reason, I love this trilogy. Doig writes with knowledge and clarity. He has done his research, and perhaps most impressively, he makes it fun.

The two books of the Morrie Trilogy that take place in Butte are:
Work Song (Riverhead Books, 2010)
Sweet Thunder (Riverhead Books, 2013)

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