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Sunday, April 20, 2014

Ivan Doig

At a glance
Dancing at the Rascal Fair
by Ivan Doig

Scribner Paperback Fiction
405 pages, $$14
paperback

Just because you can sum up a writer's work in one word doesn't mean that the writer is a failure.

In Ivan Doig's case, the very opposite is true.

Doig's word is Montana, which, despite its loaded nature, is a perfect fit even for a novelist who has lived in Seattle since 1966.

Why loaded? Because we tend to categorize, fairly and unfairly, those who write about Montana. Their prose is muscular, their ideas are as grandiose as the mountains that inspire them, they know something about life that the rest of us don't. Blah-blah-blah.

It's especially easy to be critical when the writer in question isn't a native of the state, which was the case all through the 1980s when books about the Big Sky country were churned out one after the other. Most were written by East Coast pencil-pushers who came, spent one season there and wrote a memoir of their experiences.

To them, Montana was the literary equivalent of Frontierland.

To Doig, a native of White Sulphur Springs, Montana is a place of vastness, both of landscape and theme. But it's also a country that spawned people, and stories, that are steeped in what's real. Much of what he is as an artist can be found in "Dancing at the Rascal Fair," which is the February selection for The Spokesman-Review Book Club.

Unlike so many others who have tried to capture the reality of Montana on paper, Doig is no dilettante. He bleeds bitterroot. His father was a ranch hand, his mother a ranch cook. He worked at various jobs, ranging from ranch work to newspapering, before finding his voice as a novelist.

It was a trained voice. Doig earned two degrees at Northwestern University, and he graduated from the University of Washington in 1969 with a Ph.D. in history. (His wife, Carol Dean Muller, is a professor at Shoreline Community College.)

Doig's work includes both nonfiction and fiction. His critically acclaimed memoir "This House of Sky, Landscapes From a Western Mind" -- a National Book Award nominee -- boasts one of the most shattering lines of American literature: "Soon after daybreak on my sixth birthday, my mother's breathing wheezed more raggedly than ever, then quieted. Then stopped."

But it is his fiction that has won Doig his most loyal fans. And among his six novels, Doig is probably best known for his so-called "Montana Trilogy": "English Creek" (1984), "Dancing at the Rascal Fair" (1987) and "Ride With Me, Maria Montana" (1990). Each book tackles a different time: "English Creek" is set in the late 1930s and "Ride With Me, Maria Montana" in 1989.

"Dancing at the Rascal Fair," although the middle book, is set several decades earlier than the others. It begins in 1889 with our 19-year-old protagonists, Angus McCaskill and Rob Barclay, boarding a ship that will take them on the first leg of their journey from Scotland to Montana. It ends with the killing post-World War I influenza epidemic and the harsh winter of 1919-20.

In between, Doig gives us the story of American immigration as told through these two young Scottish settlers, the verse-spouting Angus and the high-spirited Rob. We follow them as they come upon the beautiful-but-unforgiving territory of north-central Montana, do the back-breaking work required of a homesteader, raise sheep, find wives, raise families and in the process face all the heartbreaks, personal and professional, that the difficult land offers as an almost necessary rite.

If is one of those heartbreaks that eventually causes a rift between Angus and Rob, a conflict that ends up fueling the story as it is being told, years afterward, by the aging Angus.

"Against this masterfully evoked backdrop, Mr. Doig addresses his real subject: love between friends, between the sexes, between the generations," wrote a reviewer in the New York Times Book Review. "His is a prose as tight as a new thread and as special as handmade candy. . . . `Dancing at the Rascal Fair' races with real vigor and wit and passion."

The characters in his novel are fictional, but the immigration of Scottish families to Montana is something that Doig knows personally. His own father was born south of Helena in 1901 in a homesteader's cabin.

"And now that I am middle-aging and deep-bearded," the 64-year-old Doig once wrote, "I am told continually by older Montanans of my resemblance to D.L. Doig, the first of the family to come from Scotland to Montana."

That personal connection, Doig says, was what made sure that the idea of a novel about homesteaders "tagged after me through life like a second shadow."

Given "Dancing at the Rascal Fair" has been one of his best-selling books, it's a good thing that he let the shadow catch him.

"He kind of reaffirmed what everybody had been hoping and thinking -- that there would be a real Western literature, not just shoot-`em-ups,"" author William Kittredge told The Missoulian newspaper. "And it happened."

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