This isn’t the first Ivan Doig book I’ve read, and it probably shouldn’t be a first introduction to his works. It’s more revelation than narrative — the flashes of life seen in the pages of this book are the raw materials input to the factory of his creative intellect that eventually produced his great Montana novels. This story is told in two voices — the memories of youth that, Doig, an old man recreates, and the recovered letters of his mother, sent to her brother aboard a destroyer in the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Japan. Together he merges the present and the past, his memories and those letters into a brilliant sketch of that brief World War II stretch of Ivan’s life, the short time he had with his mother before she died — on his sixth birthday.
I think this book succeeds for me because Doig doesn’t have to persuade me to listen — I know his voice already from the first two volumes of his McCaskill trilogy. I know this hard land of shepherds and this hard life where life is filled with aching beauty, but does you no favors. I know it because it is Montana that seems more real to me than the real thing, the Montana he created in those two books and in the also excellent book The Whistling Season. Certainly there are parts of this book that would appeal to any reader, but it would be a shame if this were your first introduction to Doig because you would fail to appreciate the implication of so many elements of this story, the events whose echoes ring more clearly in his fiction than in this memoir. So, read, if you can stand the painful reality of it, Dancing at the Rascal Fair, and then (you must, you will) read English Creek. Or if the thought that a beautiful story could be loaded with a share of pain concerns you, then read his most recent book, published just last year, the wonderfully perfect story The Whistling Season (although no great story is all rose petals and spring rain, certainly not one set in Montana in the first half of the century…). I wish I had the time and memory to do justice to those books, or even to write a brief summary of how they handle the issues of love, loss, and the dynamic of a man and a woman, and of a father and son, but tonight is for Heart Earth, and the things I want to hang on to from it.
New word from this book: caryatids-
A caryatid is a sculpted female figure serving as an architectural support taking the place of a column or a pillar supporting an entablature on her head.
Pasted from <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caryatids> — go there for a picture!
Such civic women are caryatids of so much of that hard Montana past, they carry the sky.
Clever turn of a phrase: “The lariat proletariat, where my grandparents and parents started out, was done in by mechanization, ending up in town jobs or none.”
Two extended quotes, the first from Winter in Montana:
….World War Two and its songs on the radio had come, and I was the combination of kid who could listen to mairzy doats and dozy doats, and little lambsie divy, and staidly tell you, sure, everybody knows mares eat oats and a doe could too, and lambs would take to ivy; then go outside and disappear into fathoms of imagination the rest of the day. Tough and thorough, doctrinaire and dreamy, healthy as a moose calf, I seem to have sailed through the Faulkner Creek years with my adults giving to me generously from their days. Words on a page became clear to me there, long before school; somebody in the revolving cast of busy parents and young Ringer uncles hired to do the ranch chores and a visiting grandmother checking up on us from Moss Agate, one or another of those had to have been steadily reading to me. My immersion into print, the time indoors with books and a voice willing to teach me all the words, surely I owe to that ranch’s long winters.
Winter also brought out the trapper, to be watched from our kitchen window in the snow-roofed house, tending the trapline on Faulkner Creek.
The bundled figure sieves in and out of the creek-side willows, a dead jackrabbit in hand for bait. Gray to catch white, for weasels in their snowy winter coats are the quarry, their pelts fetching a prime price from the fur buyer in Helena.
The weasels hunt along the creek in invisibility against the snow, terror to grouse and mice, or dart up to the ranch buildings, murder in the chickenhouse; their sylph bodies are such ferocious little combustion tubes that they have to eat with feverish frequency to live. Wherever the double dots of weasel tracks indicate, the trapper sets a small contraption of jaws and trigger and neatly baits it with a bloody morsel of rabbit. Ritual as old as any tribe–though these traps are springsteel, bought from a catalogue–but every trapper possesses a trademark and this one distinctively takes the trouble to bend a bow of branch in attachment to each trap. When the animal sets off the trap, the branch will yank the entire apparatus up into the cold air and the weasel will die a quicker, less contorted death.
One after another the traps are attended to this way, an even dozen in all. The trapsetting impulse evidently is the same as in catching fish, the snarer hates to quit on an odd number.
Not nearly all the visited traps hold weasels this day but enough do, each frozen ermine form dropped in careful triumph into the gunnysack at the trapper’s waist. At last, from the end of the trapline the figure turns back up the creek, again toward the ranch house with the meringue of snow upon its roof. The trapper is my mother.
The second of the freedom his mother gifted him as a child
Any bloodline is a carving river and parents are its nearest shores. At the Faulkner Creek ranch I had learned to try out my mother’s limits by running as fast as I could down the sharp shale slope of the ridge next to the ranch house. How I ever found it out without cartwheeling myself to multiple fractures is a mystery, but the avalanche angle of that slope was precisely as much plunge as I could handle as a headlong four- and five-year-old. The first time my visiting grandmother saw one of my races with the law of gravity, she refused ever to watch again. Even my father, with his survivor’s-eye view from all the times life had banged him up, even he was given pause by those vertical dashes of mine, tyke roaring drunk on momentum. But my mother let me risk. Watched out her kitchen window my every wild downhiller, hugged herself to bruises while doing so, but let me. Because she knew something of what was ahead? Can it have been that clear to her, that reasoned? The way I would grow up, after, was contained in those freefall moments down that shale-bladed slope. In such plunge, if you use your ricochets right, you steal a kind of balance for yourself; you make equilibrium moment by moment because you have to. Amid the people and places I was to live with, I practiced that bouncing equilibrium and carried it on into a life of writing, free-falling through the language. My father’s turn at seeing me toward gravitational independence would come. But my mother’s came first and it came early, in her determination that I should fly free of the close coddling she’d had as an ill child. At the Faulkner Creek place she turned me loose in that downhill spree.
They head to Arizona, and his mother writes “I always thought a desert is just nothing, but have changed my mind…It is really beautiful here, in the desert way.”
And a question — can desert dwellers really see this?
Everything so green, my mother’s pen granted. It wasn’t just our outlander imaginations that the saguaro cacti looked more portly every day; they indeed were fattening on the rain, the precious moisture cameled up inside their accordion-style inner works.