Returning to Montana in 1919, ten years after he pinch-hit as a rural schoolteacher in The Whistling Season (2006), Morris Morgan finds the city of Butte roiled by labor unrest.
The Anaconda Copper Mining Company has just imposed a 22 percent pay cut that has union leader Jared Evans reluctantly planning a strike if the company won’t negotiate in good faith. Morrie is sympathetic, particularly since Jared is engaged to one of his former students, but he’s more interested in finding a job and getting better acquainted with Grace Faraday, the feisty widowed proprietress of his boardinghouse. After an unsatisfactory stint at a funeral home—the boozy wakes are too hard on his head—Morrie’s scholarly savoir faire gets him hired by Samuel Sandison, an eccentric former rancher who runs the Butte public library (mostly because the trustees covet his magnificent book collection). Unfortunately, Morrie gets noticed by two of Anaconda’s goons, who think that a guy arriving in Butte with a sketchy back story and without a trunk must be one of those radical outside agitators the company likes to string up from time to time. Since Morrie is still on the lam from Chicago gangsters who took a dim view of his winning money from them by betting on a fixed fight, he’s not eager to have anyone poking around in his past. So it’s maybe not the smartest move to agree to let the union hold clandestine meetings at the library, especially since Sandison has warned him against taking sides, but Morrie can’t help getting involved when his sympathies are roused. His debonair, mildly sardonic voice makes Morrie an engaging narrator/protagonist, though the novel’s most riveting character is Sandison, who atones for past misdeeds with an appropriately bookish contribution to the union’s struggle.
More atmospheric, pleasingly old-fashioned storytelling from Doig (The Eleventh Man, 2008, etc.), whose ear for the way people spoke and thought in times gone by is as faultless as ever.