In October 1889 Rob Barclay and Angus McCaskill set off from Scotland for America to start a new life. They travel by ship, train, and supply wagon to the small town of Gros Ventre, Montana where they finally find Rob’s uncle. The two partners start homesteads raising sheep and families. Years later Rob and Angus have a major falling out yet still need to work together to survive in the semi-wilderness. This is the second written, but first chronologically, of Ivan Doig’s Montana Trilogy. Angus will be Jick’s – the protagonist of English Creek – grandfather.
Ivan Doig’s hallmark is his beautiful descriptions of places and events. I could see their position as steerage passengers deep in the bow of the ship. Then I felt danger and dread as their ship sailed through a big storm. Later, when Rob and Angus have to travel through a blizzard I was surprised when I looked up from my reading to see it wasn’t snowing outside. But Doig’s best work is when he describes Montana. Here Angus describes his first view of his new home as they approach on a supply wagon:
“…[T]he mist along the west began to wash away and mountains shouldered back into place here and there along that horizon. The light of this ghostly day became like no other I had ever seen, a silver clarity that made the stone spines of ridges and an occasional few cottonwood threes stand out like engravings in book pages.” [p 44]
And later Angus describes riding out to see his sheep where they had been set out to graze.
“Three weeks before, Varick and I had left Davie here with his browsing cloud of sheep; when I returned with its shearing crew, the reservation grass had crisped from green to tan, the pothole lakes now were wearing sober collars of dried shore, the bannerlike flow of the Two Medicine River had drawn down to orderly instead of headlong. Even the weather was taking a spell of mildness, a day of bright blue positively innocent of any intention to bring cold rain pouncing onto newly naked and shelterless sheep, and with that off my mind I could work at the cutting gate with an eye to other horizons than the storm foundry of those mountains to the west.” [p 277]
That enormous landscape takes its toll on the inhabitants. Here Angus’ wife (whom I won’t name in order to not spill a plot element) tells him
“There is so much of this country., People keep having to stretch themselves out of shape trying to cope with so much. Distance, Weather. The aloneness. All the work. This Montana sets its own terms and tells you, do them or else. Angus, you and Rob maybe were made to handle this country, [I don’t] seem to have been.” [p 332]
His wife becomes so diminished she refers to herself in the third person and holds herself in remove.
“Times such as this, conversing with her was like speaking to a person [she] had sent out to deal with you.” [p 208]
Telling the story in the first person, from Angus’ point of view, shows us how we really deal with the world. Angus has conflict with his wife, and later his son and with Rob. While we see the cause of the conflict that set his son and Rob against him, from this remove of time it’s hard to understand why Rob did what he did. Though they’ve been friends and partners for decades they never fully understand one another.
“Where had this Rob come from, out of the years? Watching him at this kind of behavior, I couldn’t help but remember another Rob, of another spring, of another hard time.” [p 388]
“You I knew longest of any, Rob, and I barely fathomed you at all, did I. Hard ever to know, whether time is truly letting us see from the pattern of ourselves into those next to us.” [p 400]
If literature’s purpose is to reveal the human condition – and I think it is – this hits the nail on the head. We can barely understand ourselves, much less others; even those we’ve been close to for half a century.
This is my fifth Ivan Doig book and far and away my favorite. As much as I like his novels, Paul of “The Whistling Season”, Rusty of “The Bartender’s Tale”, and Jick of “English Creek” are boys coming of age; their stories are interesting but not compelling. Morrie, the protagonist of a couple of other of Doig’s books is just not believable. But Doig’s descriptive prose wins the day. In this novel, not only do we get those beautiful descriptions of places and extended activities such as an ocean crossing or navigating through a blizzard, we have fully realized characters with genuine human problems which aren’t swept away at the end.
Not only does Doig beautifully manage large scenes, he also turns a phrase.
“Gros Ventre is gaining a reputation as Hell with a roof on it.” [p 35]
“Rob had hands quick enough to shoe a unicorn.” [p 42]
“Ninian Duff .. would think three times before offering to lend you the sleeves of his vest.” [p 102]
“What followed, an exact month from that day … even yet seems the kind of dream a puppet must have, each odd moment on its own string of existence, now dangled, now gone, no comprehension allowed between.” [p 194]
“Suddenly every male in Montana between milkteeth and storeteeth seem to have gone to war.” [p 324]
And it’s fun to see people and places that turn up in other of Doig’s work. In “English Creek” we see an older Toussaint Rennie; we get a better picture of his life and toughness here. The Medicine Lodge Saloon makes an appearance in “English Creek” and is the main location of “The Bartender’s Tale”. Finally, understanding the background of Jick’s parents’ lives is a real punch. Maybe I should have seen that coming, but I didn’t.
If you enjoy expansive, well-written stories of the American West, this trilogy, and especially this novel is a great place to dive in.