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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

The Richest Hill on Earth

Doig’s Historic Fiction…Butte in 1919

By 1919, Butte, Montana had fully made the transition from mining camp to industrial city. It is no exaggeration to say that the copper mining city, a mile high in the Rockies, was the most important mining center in the country. What a place it must have been – ethnically diverse, a cauldron of labor unrest; a place where culture, politics and big business collided.

Ivan Doig’s latest book – Work Song – deals with all this history in a compelling, engaging way that liberally mixes a novel’s plot with historical background. Doig understands what makes Butte such a fascinating and enduringly important place. In a recent interview with the Seattle Times the author of novels, non-fiction and a great memoir This House of Sky said that he encounters people from Butte at his book reading/signing sessions and “they’re still proud of Butte and still taken with it.”

Julia Keller, the cultural critic for the Chicago Tribune, like me, really enjoyed the new Doig, saying it captures the American spirit.

Keller wrote, “Doig, grand storyteller that he is, understands this (spirit). His books — with “Work Song,” the tally hits 13 — explore the American West with humor and pathos. His men and women are drifters, gamblers, barkeeps, landladies, cowboys, thugs, poets and librarians, and that’s just the smallest peek at his census.”

The New York Times featured Work Song in the Sunday Book Review and also did an interview with Doig about his own work and reading habits. Big surprise for a guy writing about Butte, he loves Roddy Doyle’s book The Commitments about a band of young Irish musicians in Dublin.

Doig has long objected, in his gentle and gentlemanly way, to being characterized as a “western writer.” Tim Rutten, writing in the Los Angeles Times gives him his due. “Ivan Doig is an exemplary regional voice in American letters,” Rutten says, “which simply means he is a very fine writer who has chosen to site his work in the West, particularly in Montana, where he was born and grew up.”

Among the reviews of Work Song that I reviewed, only the Washington Post’s Jonathan Yardley took shots at the tight, little historical novel calling it “uninviting” and “a world-class dud” among other pejoratives. I can’t agree.

I wonder if the typically provocative Yardley has ever been to Butte. In 1919, the Anaconda Company, the powerful economic and political force in Montana, secretly owned virtually all the newspapers in the state and, of course, in his book Doig pokes many sticks at “the company.”

I’m not suggesting that the eminent critic of the Washington Post is some how secretly carrying water for the long-dead Anaconda Company, but his review is every bit as much of a polemic as you might have found on the front page of the company’s Butte newspaper in 1919. Which is to say, read Work Song for yourself and see if its not a pretty decent summer read with a realistic dose of the truth-stranger-than-fiction history of the “richest hill on earth.”

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