Ivan Doig’s ‘Sweet Thunder’: baiting the Anaconda monster
In his latest novel, “Sweet Thunder,” Seattle author Ivan Doig revisits Butte Mont., where teacher Morrie Morgan lands in the middle of labor strife when he takes a job writing for a pro-union newspaper. Doig will read at several Seattle-area locations, August through October.
Special to The Seattle Times
The author of “Sweet Thunder” will appear at these area locations:
• At noon Saturday at the Edmonds Bookshop (425-775-2789 or edmondsbookshop.com ).
• At 7 p.m. Aug. 27 at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park (206-366-3333 or thirdplacebooks.com ).
• At 5:30 p.m. Sept. 7 at the University Book Store in Seattle (206-634-3400 or ubookstore.com).
• At 7 p.m. Sept. 10 at Parkplace Books in Kirkland (425-828-6546 or parkplacebookskirkland.com ).
• At 7 p.m. Sept. 17 at Village Books in Bellingham (360-671-2626 or villagebooks.com ).
• AT 7 p.m. Sept. 24 at the central branch of the Seattle Public Library (206-386-4636 or spl.org).
• At 6 p.m. Oct. 24 at Town Hall Seattle as part of the Litquake Literary Festival (litcrawl.org/seattle).
by Ivan Doig
Riverhead Books, 320 pp., $27.95
In his newest novel, Seattle author Ivan Doig returns to gritty, historic Butte, Mont., the “Pittsburg of the Rockies” and the setting for his popular 2010 novel, “Work Song.” Happily, Doig brings back his earlier cast of memorable characters from that novel, including Morrie Morgan, the elegant and erudite former schoolteacher/librarian with a shady Chicago past, and Sam Sandison, a fearsome former ranch baron with a weakness for rare and expensive books.
It is 1921, and a tenuous truce between Butte’s beleaguered mine workers and the all-powerful Anaconda Copper Mining Company is in shambles. The company is at its peak of postwar production, having mined $200 billion in copper ore from Butte Hill to wire America for electrical power. Anaconda and its Wall Street principals hold the burgeoning city and its surrounding state firmly in its political grip. And Butte’s hard-strapped miners are being squeezed for the slim gains their union was able to secure.
Morrie is called upon to put his verbal acuity to work as editorial writer for the “Butte Thunder,” the scrappy newspaper of the miners’ union. When a Thunder-sparked campaign threatens to impinge on Anaconda’s profits, the company brings in its own word-slinger for its house organ, a red-baiting, union-busting journalist fresh from the Chicago labor wars.
Doig, who holds a Ph.D. in history, is at his best in his historic novels, and he unspools this compelling tale among the clatter of typewriters and the “sweet thunder” of printing presses. Readers get a revealing glimpse of old-time advocacy newspapering at its most passionate. “Representation is one thing,” writes Morrie in a page one editorial, “colonial domination is another. Anaconda has made Montana the Congo of America.”
The stakes are raised when a union negotiator is killed in a suspect mine explosion; there is an assassination attempt, and a visitation from Morrie’s past puts his recent marriage (and tentative future) on the rocks. A work lockout by Anaconda further increases the pressure on Morrie and the struggling mine workers.
With his safety at risk, Morrie contemplates hopping the next train out of town. But Butte and its denizens have grown on him. “This tortured, boastful, inventive, grudge-ridden, wisecracking city built not upon bedrock but copper ore was impossible to banish, like some wayward family member you can’t help but keep in touch with.”
Fortunately, it seems much the same with Doig and Montana. The author has returned to his native state in twelve of his fifteen books, all to marvelous effect. In “Sweet Thunder,” Doig also draws on his newspapering past. The heady smell of ink, newsprint and tobacco smoke fairly lifts from the pages.
Friendship, loyalty, love, politics and the pitched labor wars of the early 20th century all come to bear on this epic tale. The pace quickens and surprises ensue as the narrative spins to its high-wire close.
Doig may be finished with Butte for a time, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more of these characters in a future novel. Sam Sandison, the Montana settler turned ranch baron, turned rare book collector, mentions his intention of writing a memoir.
That would be yet another Montana book worthy of Doig’s prodigious talents.
Tim McNulty is co-editor of “Notes from Disappearing Lake, The River Journals of Robert Sund” (Pleasure Boat Studio).