Western literature has been called “the Spirit of America,” as it tells the stories of people who succeed in lands or circumstances greater than themselves. Often these stories are epic in nature, depicting deep sacrifices and difficult struggles of the characters. Ivan Doig is one of the most recognizable of the “western voices,” a storyteller who paints a vivid, realistic picture of what the west was like in grittier times.
Morrie Morgan, who we met in THE WHISTLING SEASON and WORK SONG, makes another appearance in SWEET THUNDER. It is now 1920, and Morrie brings his new wife Grace back to Butte, Montana, after a year-long honeymoon. The couple has inherited a mansion from their old friend, Doria Sandison. The only stipulation is that they provide the now-widowed Sam with a place to live for the rest of his existence, which seems like an opportunity for Morrie and Grace to start a new life together.
"Ivan Doig chronicles the land of Montana (called the Treasure State for good reason) and its colorful heritage by bringing to life the people and struggles that created its enduring greatness."
Butte, nicknamed the “Richest Hill on Earth,” is a thriving place. The Anaconda Copper Company is stripping profits from the earth hand over fist, with shifts running around the clock. With its rich mines and snow-capped mountains rising out of the Continental Divide, Butte has a view like no other place. It is also a boomtown, but trouble looms ahead.
The Roaring Twenties is a tumultuous decade for the nation, and Butte is not immune to the political and social unrest. Corporations, politicians and unions are battling over profits, wages, workers’ rights and prohibition under the specter of Bolshevism. And Morrie soon finds himself caught up in it all.
“Temptation knows how to find me,” says Morrie, a well-intentioned guy who can’t seem to keep himself out of trouble. This time, temptation comes in the form of a job offer. When he is approached by his friend and political power player, Jared Evans, and his wife, Morrie agrees to become the editorial voice for a newspaper that is owned by the miner’s union. Writing under the pen name “Pluvius,” Morrie finds he has a wealth of knowledge and words at his fingertips and the power to use it. In his daily column for The Butte Thunder, Pluvius writes about health and safety issues in the mines, making it a popular paper with the citizens who know well that a worker a week is dying in the mines. When the Anaconda Copper Company-backed Butte Daily Post hires a well-known Chicago reporter to fight back, the war of words begins.
Morrie’s questionable past starts to catch up with him. When a trunk of his old belongings shows up, his new bride discovers he is not who he appears to be. Now wondering just who she has married, Grace leaves him. But Morrie’s troubles are only beginning.
Life in Butte takes an even tougher turn when the Anaconda Copper Company and the miner’s union come to an impasse over wage negotiations. To make matters worse, someone is leaking Morrie’s column to the opposition, giving the company paper time to do damage control and undermine Morrie’s powerful voice in the community. A case of mistaken identity and the threat of retribution for past sins bring the turmoil to a head, but all is not lost. A handful of heart-wrenching confessions and the integral strength of the community bring the story full circle to a satisfying end.
Many of the characters from THE WHISTLING SEASON and WORK SONG return to create a familiar backdrop in this third novel. With SWEET THUNDER, Ivan Doig chronicles the land of Montana (called the Treasure State for good reason) and its colorful heritage by bringing to life the people and struggles that created its enduring greatness. As anyone from Butte might say, “This story has the same amount of tough as the town and its people.”
Reviewed by Jennifer McCord on August 23, 2013