"Outside a dog a book is man's best friend, inside a dog it is too dark to read!" -Groucho Marx========="The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." -Jane Austen========="I don’t believe in the kind of magic in my books. But I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book."-JK Rowling========"I spend a lot of time reading." -Bill Gates=========“Ahhh. Bed, book, kitten, sandwich. All one needed in life, really.” -Jacqueline Kelly=========

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Review: Ivan Doig's Trilogy: The Morrie Morgan series

The Morrie Morgan series by Ivan Doig

This past month I finally finished the third book in the Morrie Morgan series, Sweet Thunder, by Ivan Doig. The Whistling Season is one of my favorite books and I've read it several times. I became aware that it was part of a series years after the fact and didn't read the second book, Work Song until late last year. Now I've finished the whole series so it seemed like a good time to take a look at the whole trilogy.

The series begins in 1909 in Marias Coulee, a small hamlet in Montana, where a widower and farmer, Oliver Milliron, and his three young sons, Paul, Damon, and Toby answer an ad for a cook and housekeeper. Rose Llewellyn is hired even though her reply to the ad says "Can't cook but doesn't bite." When she arrives by train her brother, Morrie Morgan, comes with her and decides to stay. He eventually takes over the role of teacher in the small one-room schoolhouse. Morrie is a natural teacher and he ignites the imaginations of his students and finds ways to challenge their minds, especially Paul Milliron who is the brightest kid in the whole school and the narrator of the story. Readers of The Whistling Season come to really like and admire Morrie Morgan but more of the story is focused on the Milliron family and the lives of many of the children who attend the school together and the ways his tutelage changes their lives. For my complete review of The Whistling Season, follow this link.

We meet Morrie Morgan again in 1919 in the second book, Work Song, when he steps off another train, this time in Butte, Montana. This itinerant teacher, walking encyclopedia, and fulltime charmer is back.  After a short stint working at a mortuary, he gets a job as a library assistant, a job he seems born to do. Clearly, I homed in on the library quotes from the book. But the story is really about how to strengthen the unions, whose members are trying to figure out an angle to get more support. Morrie decides they need a song! And just like in Whistling Season the book is cram-packed with quirky characters.

If you haven't read anything by Ivan Doig before, I highly recommend his writing and for a strong feel for what it was like, what it must have been like, to live in the West in the first half of the 20th Century. Every page is full of some witticism or another or just some little treasure hidden on the page. For more about Work Song, please read my review, which is full of favorite quotes from that book.

Sweet Thunder, the third installment, wraps up the series nicely. Morrie and his bride, Grace, return to Butte a year after they left, lured by the promise of a "gift" of a house. Sandy Sandison, Morrie's old boss at the library, has given them his mansion with a catch -- he must be allowed to live with them. Like most things that are too good to be true, this house comes with more problems than it fixes. Morrie needs to find a job, and fast! He finds one, or should I say the job finds him, as the editorial writer for a brand-new newspaper in Butte, The Thunder. The paper is to be the counterweight to all the other newspapers in town which have been bought-out by the Anaconda Mining Company and their editorial pages reflect the wishes of ownership to never say a negative thing about the company. This is a fairly elaborately plotted novel with lots of twists and turns and a whole host of characters, some new but most returning from the previous books. There are lighthearted moments, especially with a Morrie doppelganger who happens to be a bootlegger but Doig "quietly conveys the injustices and cruelties of American history, particularly in the realistically depressing and temporary resolution of the union’s struggle with Anaconda" (Kirkus Reviews).

I didn't like Sweet Thunder quite as much as the first books in the series. The battles between the editorial writers for the two main newspapers got a bit old. Morrie was so focused on his job he didn't have time or energy to attend to his failing marriage, and the silly bits with the bootleggers seemed, well, silly. As I was reading other readers' reaction on Goodreads one comment really caught my attention. Doig was 75 at the time of his death in 2015. He had been suffering from multiple myeloma for several years. This book, published in 2013 was his second to last. Perhaps, mused the commenter, his illness was keeping him from being at his best. I don't know if that was it, or if it was just hard to write about such a serious topic--union busting and the dangers of mining--without getting serious at times. The series as a whole is so worth it, though, if for no other reason than for its focus on life in the US West in the first half of the 20th Century. I gave Sweet Thunder a rating of four stars, which isn't off the mark by far.


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