Similar to The Bartender’s Tale by the same author, this is a coming of age story. This novel covers Jick McCaskill’s life in late 1930’s Montana during the summer leading up to his 15th birthday. At this age Jick is
“Old enough to be on the edge of everything and too young to get to the middle of any of it.”Page 166
The story is built around three forces. First, Jick’s older brother Alec has a substantial disagreement with his parents who expect him to go to college.
“I know now, and I somehow knew even then, that the fracture of a family is not a thing that happens clean and sharp, so that you at least can calculate that from here on it will begin to be over with. Not, it is like one of those worst bone breaks, a shatter. You can mend the place, peg it and splint it and work to strengthen it, and while the surface maybe can be brought to look much as it did before, the deeper vicinity of shatter always remains a spot that has to be favored.”Page 18
In the late spring Jick accompanies his father – the ranger of the Two Medicine National Forest – on some work business. Along the way up the mountain, they come across Stanley Meixell who is hauling supplies up to some sheep camps in the mountains. Stanley has hurt his hand and Jick’s father volunteers Jick to accompany Stanley. It seems to Jick it was a summer that he
“Was beginning to seem like, when every time I turned around some new and strange avenue of endeavor was already under my feet and my father was pointing me along it and chirping, ‘Right this way, Jick'”Page 101
Jick has been aware of tension between Stanley and his dad and their travel together Stanley reveals part of his past which deepens the mystery. These three days in the mountains is a beautiful set piece in which Jick does much more work and is forced to grow up.
The third pillar of the story is a forest fire at the end. The fire is foreshadowed many times through the novel and brings the climax where Jick discovers the cause of Varick McCaskill and Stanley’s estrangement. Jick sees that his father’s decision years ago mirrors Alec’s decision at the beginning of the story,
I read somewhere that Ivan Doig does not consider himself a western writer, but the Montana prairie and mountains is really a major character in the novel. There is no way this story would work in the city or anywhere in the East.
“On this part of our route the land steadily grew more beautiful, which in Montana also means more hostile to settlement.”Page 19
The Medicine Lodge Saloon – a central place in Doig’s later novel “The Bartender’s Tale” – makes a small appearance. The saloon “gave Gros Ventre its ‘rough’ section of town”. [p 135] When Jick passes by on the Fourth of July festivities notes that “it sounded like hell changing shifts” [p 190]
Also, the laconic characters are straight out of the west. We meet “Good Help” Hebner who “like[s] his deer the same way he preferred his eggs – poached.” [p 21] We also meet Glacier Gus and Three Day Thurlow:
“Glacier Gus was an idler so slow that it was said he wore spurs to keep his shadow from treading on his heels. Three Day Thurlow had an everlasting local reputation as a passable worker his first day on a job, a complainer on his second, and gone sometime during his third.”Page 153
Along the way we see Jick helping to bring in the hay of his uncle’s farm. The description of the haying process before there were hay balers was enlightening. He is also tasked with digging a new pit for the family outhouse. He certainly does more than any 14 year old I’ve known.
The characters, landscape, and action makes for an enjoyable read and – like the other Ivan Doig novels I’ve read – happy endings are dished out to all.