English Creek

by Ivan Doig

Hardcover, 1984

Call number




ATHENEUM. NY 1984 (1984), Edition: First Edition


Depicts the personal struggles of the McCaskill family in 1930s Montana as they face a forest fire, the coming of age of fourteen-year-old Jick, rodeos, and community dances.

User reviews

LibraryThing member msf59
Two Medicine country is in northern Montana. It’s a fictional setting but by the time the reader is finished, this wonderful setting will be imprinted firmly in your mind. It’s the summer of 1939. The depression is winding down and as June begins, we are introduced to fourteen year old Jick
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McCaskill, the son of a tough hard-working forest ranger. We follow the boy through his many summer tasks and adventures, including sheep counting, delivering supplies to the outposts, toiling through the hay harvest and fighting a raging forest fire. All of this is told in much vivid detail: the 4th of July celebration goes on for over fifty pages but this helps immerse the reader into this special time and place. For Jick, it is also a summer of awakenings and revelations and he will find himself in September, a wiser and more mature young man. This is the first of a trilogy and I look forward to the others.
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LibraryThing member Esta1923
(Query: how much do you remember about the summer of the year you were 15 years old? Altho I'm 87 many of my memories are still fresh: I had graduated from highschool, and spent that summer as a camp counselor.)

"English Creek" gives its readers a view of early 20th century life in northern Montana
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thru the eyes of Jick McKaskill. Jick has his fifteenth birthday in the summer of 1939. (His family's history is detailled in "Dancing at the Rascal Fair.") Each chapter is headed by an excerpt from the Gros Ventre Weekly Gleaner but the voice of the book is Jick's. . .what he sees, hears, does, thinks. He has a busy summer and, tho only a few months older, is much wiser at its end.
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LibraryThing member hemlokgang
I've read quite a few coming of age tales, yet "English Creek" genuinely stands out. Jick is a memorable boy who is a thinker living in the land of doing, Montana. I guess I identify with the Scottish heritage and the fact that my mother spent her summers on a ranch in Montana. However, I think
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even without those common denominators a reader would become completely engaged with this young man and his queries about his family past and present. The passionate love of the land and dedication to its care, the intense family bonds and bonds of friendship. What would any coming of age tale be without some loss of innocence thrown in as well, not to mention some facing of truths and a pinch of heroism. This story was marvelous!
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LibraryThing member kukulaj
This is just a beautiful book. It is not profound. It's a very nice family story - Jick, almost 15 years old, is trying to figure out why his dad and Stanley have such tricky relationship. That's enough of a puzzle to keep the story moving. But this is not a novel driven by plot, or by political or
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philosophical issues. It is a panorama of ranch life in Montana. Haying, shepherding, fighting fires, a 4th of July picnic and dance. The story is just a framework on which to hang a rich tapestry of place and lifestyle.
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LibraryThing member SFCC
" I love how Doig can set the scene and give you that real sense of place. The characters are just as real as the scenery." Set in Montana
LibraryThing member HaroldTitus
English Creek by Ivan Doig is about a soon-to-be fifteen-year-old Montana boy forced to learn harsh lessons about people during the summer of 1939. The younger son of a national forest head ranger, John Angus (Jick) McCaskill experiences unsettling experiences that force him to feel, reflect, and
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conclude. At the summer’s conclusion he has developed a better understanding of the damage stubbornness of will can cause within a family, and he is more perceptive and accepting of the character deficiencies of flawed people.

In a conversation with his school friend Ray Heaney, Jick, thinking about his parents and his brother Alec, reveals his frustration about grown-ups arguing and falling “out over it. Why can’t they just say, here’s what it was about, it’s over and done with? Get it out of their systems?” Ray accuses Jick of thinking too much. Jick responds: “Thinking is thinking. It happens in spite of a person. … I don’t have any choice. This stuff I’m talking about is on my mind whether or not I want it to be.”

What Jick must think about is the argument his parents had had with Alec about Alec’s immediate future. Four years older than Jick, Alec has university potential. From early childhood he has demonstrated the ability to compute large numbers rapidly in his head. His parents have sacrificed during the Depression years to finance Alec’s higher education. Accustomed to success, as willful as his parents, Alec instead is determined to get married, work as a cowboy on a large cattle ranch, eventually buy a parcel of land, and attempt to raise cattle. He is unwilling to heed his father’s advice: “… whatever the hell you do, you need to bring an education to it these days. That old stuff of banging a living out of this country by sheer force of behavior doesn’t work. … You’ll be starting in a hole. … And an everlasting climb out.” But Alec is insistent upon getting married. He is unwilling to wait the four years that would enable him to get a university degree. “… we got to start [our lives]. … And we’re going to do it married. Not going to wait our life away.”

Jick is deeply disturbed. “… I somehow knew even then, that the fracture of a family is not a thing that happens clean and sharp … No, it is like one of those worst bone breaks, a shatter.” He hopes that reconciliation is yet possible. He talks to his mother about it. She describes Leona, Alec’s finance, as “too young and … flibberty. Leona is in love with the idea of men, not one man.” She exhorts Jick not to “go through life paying attention to the past at the expense of the future. That you don’t pass up chances because they’re new and unexpected.” Fairly late in the novel Jick visits his brother at the cattle ranch and discovers that Leona has cooled about marriage and Alec is working a demeaning job. Jick asks: “What is it about the damned life here that you think is so great?” Alec answers: “That it’s my own.” Days later, Jick attempts to force a reconciliation.

This is the conflict that drives the novel. As a parent of grown children, I identify with the theme that parents, utilizing their wisdom, must not only advise but strongly advocate beneficial paths to their child’s successful future. I also know from experience that every child is different and in some instances the willfulness of the maturing child trumps all degrees of parental persuasion and persistence. Looking back on this summer of 1939, the mature adult Jick McCaskill comments: “Ever since the night of the supper argument our parents thought they were contending with Alec’s cowboy phase or with Leona or the combination of the two. … What they were up against was the basic Alec.”

Jick’s secondary conflict involves his desire to learn about an apparent rift between his father Varick McCaskill and Stanley Meixell, an old codger that Jick and Varick encounter as they ride into the higher slopes of the Two Medicine National forest, just east of the Continental Divide. Varick McCaskill is the Two Medicine National Forest top ranger. He and Jick have ridden out to take a count of hundreds of sheep grazing in the national forest. Meixell is leading a pack horse carrying food and supplies to the first of several sheep herders. Jick remembers Stanley’s presence several times at his parents’ dinner table when he was four, of he and Alec being amused by Stanley’s revelations to them “that where he came from they called milk moo juice and eggs cackle-berries and molasses long-tailed sugar. Yet of his ten or so years since we had last seen him I couldn’t have told you anything whatsoever.” The talk between Varick and Stanley on the mountain slope is strained. Then, noticing that Stanley’s right hand is badly cut, Varick volunteers Jick to accompany Stanley on his trip to the sheep herders. “Those packs and knots are gonna be several kinds of hell, unless you’re more left-handed than you’ve ever shown.”

Jick is astonished and, thereafter, resentful. Not only is Stanley seriously incapacitated and his pack horse extremely ornery. Jick discovers that Stanley is an alcoholic. Jick has to do virtually all of the essential physical tasks; skin dead, wet sheep; provide his and Stanley’s meals; nurse Stanley’s wound; and deal with unexpected calamities caused by the recalcitrant pack horse. In response to Stanley implicit apology, “I hope you don’t feel hard used,” Jick, feeling exactly that way, answers, “No, it’s all been an education.”

Part of what Jick learned was that Stanley had been the original Two Medicine National Park head ranger -- had, in fact, drawn the actual boundaries. Having formed immediately a low opinion of Stanley, hearing this from him, Jick is surprised. He is forced to think. What exactly was the relationship between his father and Stanley. Why had there been an apparent cautiousness in their recent conversation? Where had Stanley been the past ten years? Jick learns the answers during a dangerous fire in the Two Medicine forest and realizes that Stanley is a man he should respect.

My only criticism of this novel is that the story took too long to reach its conclusion. In his acknowledgments, Doig indicates specific subject matter that he conscientiously researched. He uses this information liberally throughout the book, some of which doesn’t pertain directly to Jick’s conflicts. The information is instructive to any reader that appreciates how particular people lived in a specific locality at a specific time in history. We read about the work of a packjack, we witness a community Fourth of July picnic and rodeo, we learn how hay is stacked, we experience an out-of-control forest fire. We meet unusual types of people. (Doig is excellent at characterization and the use of dialogue) I liked the information but wanted more to see how the story concluded.
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LibraryThing member bibliophileofalls
Too long, not enough plot. No match to Dancing at the Rascal Fair.
LibraryThing member jmoncton
I LOVED The Last Bus to Wisdom and although this has a similar tone to it, it didn't resonate as much. Another coming of age story, this is about 15 year old Jake who is growing up in Montana during the 1930's. The beauty behind this story is the description of the setting. The country is suffering
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from the Depression and even the sheep and cattle farmers in Montana are struggling. Jake's father is a forest ranger and the whole concept of National Parks is relatively new. I definitely enjoyed reliving a piece of that part of history. But the story, although sweet, was a bit slow and although the characters are quirky and interesting, there wasn't that much growth. But, if you are looking for a quiet gentle read, this might be it.
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LibraryThing member larryerick
After reading this author's excellent autobiographical, This House of Sky, I was immediately struck at the beginning of reading this book by how difficult it was for me to distinguish between the "true" non-fiction work and this fictional narrative. Both books deal with rural Montana and its life
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in livestock and the like. I rarely have trouble sorting out fiction and non-fiction, primarily because fiction writers, even when trying not to be fantasty-like in any way, still tend to eventually reach those points in the narrative where you can feel the author manipulating the course of events for effect. Non-fiction, assuming it isn't obviously biased, is not being manipulated by the author. No matter how unlikely an event may seem to the non-fiction reader, those supposedly strange twists in events are always true. This author makes even his fictional lives ring very real. Having said that, at some point in my reading, I realized I had transitioned from a nearly non-fiction fictional tale to just a great, engaging yarn. I found myself savoring the book in small proportions to extend my enjoyment. I look forward to the second installment in the author's Montana centennial McCaskill trilogy.
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LibraryThing member laytonwoman3rd
This is listed as No.1 in Doig's McCaskill trilogy, but I believe that Dancing at the Rascal Fair is first in chronological, if not publication, order. One hot summer in the Montana mountains is featured here, as the narrator recalls how he spent the last "free" season before Europe erupted in a
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second World War, and big changes came to his family. This is a dense rich story, of a boy learning to be a man; working with his father, a member of the US Forest Service--counting sheep herds, provisioning remote camps, worrying through fire season and playing flunky to the cook at a tense fire-fighters' camp--and with his rancher uncle during a month of cutting, raking and stacking the winter's supply of hay. Along the way, he finds he can be as resourceful as the environment requires, and through his own persistence, also learns some things about his family's past that the adults have been inclined to keep buried.
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LibraryThing member BookConcierge
This is a coming-of-age story set in Depression-era Montana. It’s the first published book, though in chronological order it is book two, in Doig’s Two Medicine Trilogy, which chronicles the McCaskill family over several generations. Jick McCaskill tells the story of his youth, focusing on the
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summer of 1939, when he was fourteen, and his family faced some challenges: “where all four of our lives made their bend.”

Doig really puts the reader into the era and landscape of this novel. The sky is vast, the landscape majestic, the weather sometimes brutal, and the dangers – both natural and manmade – palpable.

Jick is a keen observer, if sometimes perplexed. I love his descriptions of various events – accompanying his father as he “counts” the sheep, helping a wounded camp tender, tasting his first alcohol, enjoying the Fourth of July town picnic and rodeo. And I love how he’s so “consumed” by food. This boy is ALWAYS hungry! He’s also curious and continues to question those around him trying to ferret out the information he needs to piece together the puzzle that is his family’s history. He’s young enough that he still feels “responsible” for many things that happen, and consequently naïve enough to think he can affect the outcome with a well-chosen word.

There were times when Doig’s work made me think on my own father, and how he taught us love of the land and nature. That made the book all the more enjoyable for me.
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LibraryThing member DeltaQueen50
English Creek by Ivan Doig is the first book in the author’s Montana Trilogy and was originally published in 1984. The story takes place in the summer of 1939, during that brief period of time between the Great Depression and the start of World War II. Set in the fictional English Creek District
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of Montana, the story unfolds through the eyes of Jick McCaskill, the fourteen year old son of the local National Forest Ranger. As in all of Ivan Doig’s books, the author puts as much emphasis on setting and atmosphere as he does on characters and plot. He carefully links the people, the land, the weather, the history and the current conditions into a vivid and heartfelt story.

The book opens with Jick’s older brother, Alex, announcing that he has decided not to go to college that Fall but instead is planning to marry his girlfriend, Leona. He has a job as a cowhand on a neighbour’s ranch but isn’t earning much. Jick’s parents are united in their disapproval and Jick, a dutiful youth, is left to ponder the situation and the changes that are happening in his family. From accompanying his father into the back country to count the sheep being herded on National Forest land, to the local Fourth of July celebrations and the back breaking work of haying season, the story paints a strong picture of rural life as it was in the 1930s.

English Creek isn’t an adventure story, instead it puts the reader in a specific place and time. The slow pace of the book mirrors the times when people didn’t rush through their days. Time is taken to speak with visitors, listen to stories and to puzzle out one’s thoughts and actions. I enjoyed this story and look forward to reading the other two books in the trilogy.
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LibraryThing member m.belljackson
English Creek opening is a great celebration of Rain!

Sheep (with no compassion for the creatures) are woven in with the gentle adventures of
The McCaskill Family and indelible descriptions of The Two Medicine lands, reefs, and mountains.

While rodeos are tough to get through, Ivan Doig delivers a
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Classic Fourth of July,
with Jick's Mother's rousing speech a real surprise to characters and readers!

The hand drawn map works perfectly to check on scenery locations and families.

Readers may still wonder why good man Varick McCaskill did not quietly insist to Stanley
that he request a transfer or leave of absence or help him find another job instead of turning him in.

As well, while Alec's eventual demise was fairly predictable, adding the death of Varick was an unfortunate ending to his story.
For this favorite character, we would have wanted his impact in the 3rd book of the trilogy.
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