The metals and mining industry hasn't inspired many notable novels; Nostromo, Joseph Conrad's tale of Latin American silver mines, and Emile Zola's Germinal, an exposé of coal mining in 19th Century France, are perhaps the two most famous exceptions.
That's puzzling. The nature of the industry—the transformation of rock into material wealth, the sometimes hellish working conditions and the great mass of men and women who have worked in and around its mines and smelters—would seem to be rich material for fiction.
Ivan Doig, a longtime chronicler of the history of the American West, pursues some of these themes in his new novel, Work Song, set in the copper mining town of Butte, Mont., in 1919. Not that Butte was just any mining town—the "Richest Hill on Earth," as it was known for many years, held at the time the world's largest-known copper deposit. And while the lure of Montana's copper was never quite as strong as that which generated California's gold rush more than half a century earlier, a massive mining industry grew up around the West's reserves of copper, drawing in workers from Europe and beyond.
Doig writes that Butte in those days was the "Constantinople of the Rockies," with workers from across Europe flocking to mine the riches beneath the city. "It was as if Europe had been lifted by, say, the boot heel of Italy and shaken, every toiler from the hard rock depths tumbling out here."
But this is no idealized vision of America as an immigrant paradise. As the book's narrator watches Italians, Welsh, Serbians, Chinese, Irish and more emerge from The Hill at the end of a shift, he notes that "husky Finns clustered with other Finns, the Cornishmen not mingling with the Italians," as each nationality retired to their own neighborhood. "If America was a melting pot, Butte seemed to be its boiling point."
If life in a mining town was hard, conditions in the mines themselves were far tougher. We see them firsthand through the eyes of the narrator, Morris Morgan, a claustrophobic ex-schoolteacher whose first (and presumably only) experience 3,000 feet below ground level provides one of the novel's more memorable descriptive passages.
This and other set-pieces in the novel have the sense of being meticulously researched, and give a hint of the huge human toll inflicted by the mines just two years before the novel opens, a fire in Butte's Speculator Mine killed 168 people, at the time the worst mining disaster in history.
The villain of the novel is the owner of Butte's riches, the Anaconda Mining Co., which cuts wages and hires goons to rough up or murder troublemakers among the miners. The local union has seen its power decline due to losses from World War I, rivalry with the more radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and Anaconda's ruthlessness. Morgan, who comes to Butte looking only to make a living, is slowly drawn in to taking sides in the battle between the mineworkers and Anaconda.
The broad outlines of Doig's story won't win any awards for originality, involving as they do a mysterious stranger, a love interest in the form of a widowed landlady and union battles against an exploitative mining company. And what should be the heart of the novel, the attempt to unify the workers against Anaconda and reduce support for the IWW by composing the morale-boosting "Work Song" of the title, fails to ring true.
However, the novel is given life by the depth of the characters that Doig portrays. Morgan is a many-layered character, with an unexpected past in the boxing rings and underworld gambling dens of Chicago (indeed, betting forms one of the novel's secondary themes, with the notorious 1919 World Series hovering in the background). But perhaps the most memorable is Sander S. Sandison, an imposing Montana cattle rancher who runs the local library and harbors his own grudge against Anaconda.
But even if the plot sometimes disappoints, the portrait of Butte in its heyday is fascinating a city built on mining and immigrant labor, famous for its rough-and-tumble saloons and brothels, and for a time flaunting its wealth—Doig writes of the city's business district that "every block or so a grandiose hotel or office building stood out, as if bits of Chicago's State Street or New York's Fifth Avenue had been crated up and shipped west."
And while it's not within Doig's remit to explore the later history of Butte, the knowledge of the environmental degradation to come and the long decline and eventual sale of Anaconda add poignancy to his story.
Work Song is a reminder that once, Butte's copper was worth fighting for.