Loving the landscape
Ivan Doig explores the reality of pioneer life
Of course, I’m not sure that we want it to. There is always room for stories such as Jack Schaefer’s “Shane” or A.B. Guthrie’s “The Big Sky,” stories that attempt to capture the spirit, if not actual truth, of one part of the American experience.
That the myth doesn’t have much to say about the Native American experience is a whole other question, one that a new generation of native voices ranging from James Welch to Debra Earling is addressing.
But there’s another kind of book, too, one steeped in the actual daily life as braved by the typical pioneer of European stock. This kind of book, which Montana author and writing teacher William Kittredge once called the “real Western literature, ” captures the grit and sweat, the long winters in candle-lit cabins, the loss of sheep to coyotes and loss of cattle to air so cold that it would cause a snowman to don a parka. It’s the kind of book that puts you in a buckboard wagon bouncing over a dusty mesa, on a horse overlooking a lush valley, atop a mountain boasting a panoramic view of the vast landscape that we’ve come to know as Montana.
One of the best of those books is “Dancing at the Rascal Fair,” the middle novel of Ivan Doig’s so-called Montana Trilogy (the others being “English Creek” and “Ride With Me, Maria Montana,” and the choice as February’s read for The Spokesman-Review Book Club.
Doig, who has lived in Seattle since 1966, is Montana born and bred. His grandparents emigrated from Scotland and were among those who came to the state before the turn of the 20th century. Doig’s father was born south of Helena in 1901 to cabin-dwelling homesteaders, and Doig himself was born in White Sulphur Springs. He is uniquely qualified to write about the homestead experience, and his knowledge, his feel for the land, runs through every page of “Dancing at the Rascal Fair.”
His story isn’t epic, not at least not in scope. Even though 400 pages long, it centers on one area — the Two Medicine country — and two central characters: Angus McCaskill, the book’s narrator, and his best friend Rob Barclay. Both emigrate from Scotland to Montana, intent on finding their fortune by following Barclay’s uncle.
Lucas Barclay had departed Scotland several years earlier, and every since he had sent home an annual $100 bill to show how well he was doing. What the boys find when they arrive in Gros Ventre (“Grove On,” as they learn to say) isn’t exactly what they expected, both in terms of what Lucas is as a person and what he is doing as a vocation. But like all young men with big dreams, they adapt.
As Lucas says, “The Scotch are wonderful at living anywhere but in Scotland.”
Pretty soon Angus and Rob are homesteading, following the federal government’s dictates that as long as they improve a set portion of land, and live on it for five years, they can claim it as their own. And so they spend long hours at work, hours that stretch into days, days into months, and months eventually into years. They build cabins, erect fences, buy sheep to herd, find women to love, bear children — all the standard activities of life in general, homestead life in specifics.
If that were all that happens, “Dancing at the Rascal Fair” would likely still be worth reading. Doig’s eye for the particulars of frontier life is unerring, whether he be describing a sheep-shearing or a schoolhouse dance. But there is more. In fact, the book is built upon two central themes: unrequited love and broken friendship.
Angus has his heart broken and takes a wife as consolation. The fact that the wife he takes, Adair, is the Rob’s sister, leads to the second situation. Throughout the remainder, fully half, of the novel, Angus’ inability to quell the fires of emotion that continue to burn for his first love, even while he stays loyal to his wife, sets everything in motion: anger, loss, enduring stubbornness.
And, meanwhile, life goes on. Doig chose to tell his story in a three-decade setting, from the boys’ 1889 departure from Scotland through World War I and the flu epidemic of 1920. The winters come, the winters go, and no matter what the characters feel inside, the breaking hearts, the fear of the long nights of cold, the rage at former friends, the chores must be done, decisions made. And, when necessary, bodies to be buried and losses to be grieved.
Like all good novels, “Dancing at the Rascal Fair” is filled with meaning, with themes and thoughts and actions that explore the full range of human endeavor. In one sense, it’s a cautionary tale. This becomes clear that first time that we hear the tune from which Doig took his title:
“Dancing at the rascal fair,
devils and angels all were there,
heel and toe, pair by pair,
dancing at the rascal fair.”
“I laughed along with every note,” Angus says, “for the old verse thrummed as clear to me as an anthem.”
But maybe the most persistent theme that Doig explores is one of the land itself. At one point, Angus surveys the land he eventually will live on, looking north at “the broad patient benchland and the landmark butte that lifted itself to meet it” and south to the “throng of big drygrass ridges shouldering between this creek branch and the South Fork.” But it is to the west that his eyes are drawn the most, where over him loom “the mountains as steady as a sea wall. The most eminent of them in fact was one of the gray-rock palisades that lay like reefs in the surge of the Rockies, a straight up-and-down cliff perhaps the majority of a mile high and, what, three or more miles long. A stone partition between ground and sky, even-rimmed as though it had been built by hand, countless weathers ago.”
It is, Angus knows, what he has been looking for. Those mountains, he says, “were my guide now, even the wind fell from mind in their favor. Seeing them carving their canyons of stone into the sky edge, scarps and peaks deep up into the blue, a person could have no doubt where he was. The poor old rest of the earth could hold to whatever habit it wished, but this Two Medicine country answered to a West Pole, its own magnetic world top here along its wildest horizons.”
It’s to Doig’s credit that, though he tells the story through Angus’ eyes, he gives us plenty of room to see things as others might view them throughout the novel. Angus is as unyielding, as obstinate as any of the Barclays whom he comes to hate. Yet Doig gives us hope, too; since the story is told years after the happenings that Angus describes, it seems that times does, eventually, take off the roughest of his edges.
It’s equally clear that time, at least to humans, can’t change the landscape, the mountains that serve as guide to Angus McCaskill and so many others. To those mountains, the myths of man are all the same: mere stories that we tell our children over campfires, dinner tables or even television trays.