Morrie Morgan is a bit like his creator, Ivan Doig. He’s a traveler, familiar with many parts of the country, but most at home in Montana. He’s a journalist, a newspaper editorialist, a master of the stinging denunciation of injustice. And, like his inventor, he’s an affable fellow, fine conversationalist and talented writer.
“Morrie is smarter than I am, though,” says Doig. “He knows Latin phrases by heart that I have to look up. Of course, I don’t know that a writer should admit that a character is smarter than the author.” And besides, Morrie owns what might be the biggest money pit in the history of Butte, a mansion that he came into by curious means that Doig describes in his new novel, Sweet Thunder, continuing a story begun in The Whistling Season (2006). “My wife and I don’t have that problem,” he says. “We have what we call an ‘envied house’ 300 feet above the Puget Sound. I had to scratch my head to think of everything that might go wrong with a big house such as Morrie owns. The mansions that went up in Butte at the time were and are fantastic, but I liked putting Morrie in a situation where he had more house than he knew what to do with.”
Sweet Thunder isn’t just about the tribulations of a homeowner, though. It is set in a time when Montana is booming thanks to the worldwide demand for the copper and other ores that miners are pulling out of its skin—but dying, one a week or so, for the privilege of being paid skinflint wages by the bosses who live in those big piles up on the hill. Morrie is a crusader on their behalf, and his energetic labors threaten to cost him marriage, job, home, and even life at various points in the story. It’s the classic American struggle between capital and labor, a story familiar to the likes of Jack London and Sinclair Lewis but not so widely aired these days.
The period details are exactly right, for Doig is renowned as a historical researcher as well as writer. His first books, This House of Sky and Winter Brothers, are deeply researched if also highly personal studies in the history of the Northwest, books populated by artifacts, letters and memories of another time.
After both books proved successful, Doig says, his editor said to him, “Write whatever you want to.” He couldn’t figure out how to cast the next story that came to him in the form of nonfiction, and so his first historical novel, The Sea Runners (1982), was born. Two novels later came Dancing at the Rascal Fair (1987), when, he says, “I was finally able to make a living at writing books.”
Doig immersed himself in those details, studying old newspapers and maps, reading everything he could find on the Montana of a century past. It helps, he says, that “I have a penchant for hanging around with librarians.” Even so, he adds, “With a novel you don’t want people saying you’ve written a great history. You want them saying you’ve written a great story.” Doig has succeeded in doing just that, turning in an entertainment fraught with plenty of tense moments—and full of authentic history to boot.
While waiting for a tour of the Pacific Northwest and Northern California in support of Sweet Thunder, Doig is now busy working on what he calls his “lucky 13th” novel, one that will take him to the relatively unfamiliar territory of Wisconsin in 1951. He’s well along in writing that story, he says, drawing on his own experiences as a teenager living for a time with relatives far from his native Montana. Readers to the left of the 100th meridian shouldn’t worry, though—for, he promises, the story “will loop back to the West” as soon as it can.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor at Kirkus Reviews.