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
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
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
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.