Dancing at the Rascal Fair

by Ivan Doig

Hardcover, 1987

Call number




Atheneum (1987), Edition: 1st, 384 pages


Chronicles the American experiences of Angus McCaskill and Rob Barclay, Scottish immigrants, who lived for three decades in Two Medicine Country at the base of the Rocky Mountains.

User reviews

LibraryThing member SonjaYoerg
This story is like a great river: long and wide and deep. The prose flows beautifully and carries every thought and action with graceful power; you can't help but be swept along. Ready to ditch the river metaphor? Me, too.
If you like Wallace Stegner, you like Doig. If you haven't read either,
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you're missing out. Theirs are novels that open up a corner of the world, wrap it in music and place it in your hand. Dancing at the Rascal Fair is one of my favorite books.
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LibraryThing member bibliophileofalls
Excellent story; relationships, regrets, perseverence, values. The writing flows like poetry, beautiful. Many sentences have to be read again to absorb all the beauty. This book is many things but above all, it is a love story.
LibraryThing member HaroldTitus
Ivan Doig’s “Dancing at the Rascal Fair” did not win me over until I had read the first third of the book. I found the account of two young Scotsme. Angus McCaskill and Rob Barclay, emigrating to America in 1889, traveling to Montana, locating Rob’s enterprising uncle, Lucas Barclay, and
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establishing homesteads in high country just east of the Continental Divide mildly interesting. Reading about the people of the region and their ways of living was useful. Doig’s dialogue is crisp and unique to each character. He is visually expressive. His phraseology of thought and emotion is excellent. His characters are the antithesis of being stereotype.

Here are examples of Doig’s expressive skills.

About the news of the death of Rob Barclay’s father received in a letter: “As much sadness as paper can absorb was in that letter.”

About Angus’s wife’s reluctance to learn how to saddle a horse: “Beside the big gingerbread-colored horse, Adair was a small pillar of reluctance.”

About Angus and Adair’s unhappy marriage: “When a marriage begins to come apart, the stain spreads into whatever it can find.”

Doig is indeed an excellent writer. What seemed lacking initially was story excitement, compelling conflict, too much introspection by the novel’s first person narrator, Angus. But when Angus meets Anna Ramsay and falls instantly in love with her, causing the first major rift in Angus and Rob’s friendship, my attitude changed.

Angus and Rob’s deteriorating relationship is the backbone of the novel. Rob is ambitious, optimistic, socially engaging, and persuasive. Angus, ambitious enough, is educated, practical, rather cautious, and cognizant of other people’s feelings. Rob has a selfish side. Angus is introspective and principled. Angus explains three-fourths of the way through the novel how he and Rob are broadly different. “He sees life as something you put in your pocket as you please. I never find it fits that easily.” Rob wants to decide things for both of them and expects to have his way. Angus resents being manipulated. Being friends, they are able early on to banter away most of the friction this produces. Rob invests heavily in raising and grazing sheep. Angus does on a much smaller scale, and he becomes the school master of the local creek-land homestead children.

On the other side of a butte and beside a different creek is another school house. Angus makes a courtesy call on the school house and meets its school mistress, Anna Ramsay. He is entirely smitten by her. She is attracted to him. Soon they make love. He proposes. She delays her answer until the end of summer. She and her family, needing money, are to accompany Isaac Reese (a neighbor) to build railroad crossings and plow fireguard strips along the Great Northern Railway. Not long after the Ramsay family’s departure, Rob persuades Angus to ride with him by wagon to the nearest railroad station to pick up a Montgomery Ward cream separator that Rob has supposedly ordered. The separator turns out to be Adair Barclay, Rob’s 19 year old sister, whom Rob has brought from Scotland to Montana for Angus to marry. Angus is incensed. Rob has interfered in his personal life and he has placed his sister in an extremely awkward, vulnerable position. Angus has to tell Adair that he is engaged. At the end of the summer Anna tells him that she intends to marry Isaac Reese. Angus is emotionally destroyed. A month later he marries Adair. He is convinced he cannot live any longer by himself. He is also afraid that his desire for Anna will stay with him the rest of his life. Adair knows she is second-best and that Anna will always be in his thoughts.

Adair has great difficulty adapting to the bigness, harshness, and loneliness of Montana life. She resists its challenges. She miscarries twice. She tells Angus that she wants to go back to Scotland to “visit.” Angus recognizes her purpose. He narrates: “By invoking Scotland, Adair was saying that our marriage need not be a lasting barrier keeping me from Anna.” Angus has treated her with great consideration. He wants her to stay, all the while wanting Anna more. But then Adair becomes pregnant again and gives birth to a son, Varick. This event keeps her from leaving.

Years pass. The breech in Angus’s friendship with Rob widens. Rob complains to Angus about his obsession with Anna. Angus tells him not to interfere. Rob pressures Angus to join him in a “land locator” partnership. For a fee they would lead prospective settlers to dry land (the only land still available) and mark the boundaries of their future homesteads knowing all the while how foolish these settlers would be to file claims. Adair tells Angus that she “doesn’t know if she can stay, after Varick is grown and gone.” Believing he must finance his, Adair’s, and Varick’s separate futures, Angus agrees to the partnership. After two summers of land locator work, his conscience bearing heavily on him, weary of the resentment his clients direct at him, Angus quits. To make up for the lost income, he agrees to partner with Rob in raising more sheep, which will graze and be sheered on Indian reservation land.

Angus drives their combined sheep herds onto the reservation land and sets up a sheering camp. Anna and her two children pass through the camp headed north. Her husband, Isaac Reese, is building roads for the national park, and she and the children are going to visit him. Angus persuades Anna to spend the night in the camp. He then persuades her to join him to witness alone the arrival of dawn. She does so. Rob arrives late to camp, learns that Angus and she were alone together and assumes incorrectly that the two had made love. Rob accuses Angus. Angus tells him, “Rob, don’t ever give me any more guff about something that’s none of your business.” Rob tells Varick about Angus and Anna’s supposed intercourse. Varick, in his late teens, rejects his father and moves into the nearby town. Angus beats Rob to within an inch of his life.

104 pages of the book remain. Angus and Rob’s relationship deteriorates further and Angus’s relationships with Adair and Varick evolve. Enough said.

How does the ambitious, risk-taking person deal with disappointment and defeat? Is such a person able to accept less so as not to be destroyed? What separates the person who can and the person who cannot? Can such a person adapt and experience happiness? Ivan Doig has Lucas Barclay, Rob Barclay, Angus McCaskill, and Adair Barclay McCaskill answer these questions. This book was not an easy read but definitely worthwhile. Although I very much wanted to, I could not quite rate this novel five stars.
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LibraryThing member peggygillman
I ended up loving it and I sure am glad I listened to it rather than reading it. It was a slow book but in the end, that's just what it had to be. I felt I lived Angus' life right along with him. There were times when I wanted to strangle him and others where I just wanted to be in his presence.
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And I had no use for Rob toward the end of the book until he died and then I was able to see him in his good and bad. What I will say about it is when you finish this book, you will understand the good and the bad that is in all of us and how it can live in one frustrating, endearing, irritating and lovable package. So, in other words, it's a great story of life. 4/18/12
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LibraryThing member Schmerguls
This second volume of the trilolgy about norhern Montana, backs up to the 1880's when Angus MacCaskill and Rob Barclay leave Scotland and come to Montana, where Angus becomes a teacher and falls in love, everlastingly, with another teacher. This is a darker book than the first volume, and covers
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the time up to 1920, with much trial and agony during the years. I found it compelling reading, and probably more consistently melodramatic than volume one, English Creek. It caps off with a mighty struggle against fierce Montana weather. Angus is the grandfather of Jick, the prime character in English Creek. I presume the final volume will tell of Jick's father, though we learned much about him in English creek. Anyway, I will have to read the final book in the trilogy.
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LibraryThing member MrsLee
I stopped listening to the audio version of this book because although I enjoyed Mr. MacKenzie's accent and reading, I felt I was missing some of the beauty of the writing because I couldn't always understand. I was driving while trying to listen, so my concentration was elsewhere. I think I would
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enjoy listening to this after I've read the book for myself.
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LibraryThing member larryerick
This is the second book in the fictional trilogy of the McCaskill family of Montana. While it followed the first book, English Creek, in publication, the setting is really the beginning of the McCaskill saga. Moreover, while the trilogy is its own epic story in total, this book is epic in its own
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right, as it takes the first McCaskill from the shores of Scotland and ages him through many decades as a sheep rancher, teacher, husband, and father. Perhaps, it is this "epic" quality that gives this book a more mature feel to it from the first volume. Neither book lets you get bored, but there is a extra drive to this one that comes from narrating so many years of making a life. I would easily have given this book an extra star in the rating if not for two aspects: obsessive behavior by two of its key characters that is not, in my opinion, adequately explained, and thus, not adequately justified. Having strong emotional responses to situations -- situations that are not THAT uncommon -- is one thing, but turning your life upside down for decades is quite another, especially when very little, if any, of your other behavior indicates similar behavior. The author eventually resolves both of these "obsessions" in fine literary style, which may be reason for others to completely negate whatever criticism I just offered. I am certainly glad I read the book and recommend it to all others.
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LibraryThing member seasidereader
With an almost mesmerizing story of the settlement of Montana in the late 1800s-early 1900s by Scottish immigrants and audiobook narration with lovely Scottish accents, this book was a jewel.
LibraryThing member amillion
This book is very lyrical and paced with the life of settling Montana; it's not one of those you just can't put down. The story and characters build complexity over time, but the narrative is much more of the experience that I'll take away. Doig is an great storyteller transporting the reader into
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1900's Montana and the lives of the (home)'steaders. I didn't realize that this was the middle book of a trilogy (actually a prequel to the first book), and now may decide to read another. Coincidental timing to be reading about the harsh Montana winters while hibernating from a real time Colorado blizzard.
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LibraryThing member kcslade
Great historical novel of sheepherders in Montana and romance.
LibraryThing member BookConcierge
3.5 stars
Rob Barclay and Angus McCaskill leave Scotland for Montana, where Rob’s uncle Lucas is “a miner.” But what they don’t know is that Lucas’s mine, aptly named the Great Maybe, is no more. In fact, Lucas lost his hands in the explosion and is now a saloonkeeper in a small town, Gros
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Ventre, with a Native American “housekeeper,” Nancy.

Once they find him, though, nothing will keep the boys from trying to make their fortunes along with Lucas. And he helps stake them. They homestead and begin life as sheep ranchers.

Angus narrates the story, taking us from 1889 to 1919. His love for fellow schoolteacher Anna Ramsey is a central theme, although Anna breaks his heart and Angus eventually marries Rob’s younger sister Adair. She is a good partner for him, if not the passionate love he’s envisioned.

There is some absolutely beautiful writing, and Doig gives us all the emotions of life – laughter, love, grief, despair, anger, jealousy, and happiness.

One thing that did put me off a bit was Angus’s pining over Anna for so long. It reminded me of Scarlett O’Hara mooning over Ashley Wilkes beyond all reason, and without any encouragement. I’d have given the book a full four stars but for that.

I think I’ll read more of his work. I know that my husband would like this book. I think that my brother might appreciate it as well.
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LibraryThing member kslade
Good story of friends in early Montana, who came from Scotland are new to the rugged area.
LibraryThing member MrsLee
An historical fiction which takes place for the most part in Gros Ventre, Montana, this saga follows the fortunes of two young men fresh to America from Scotland in the 1800's. It details the joys and hardships of pioneering in that state with poignancy and heartfelt joy. Angus and Rob have their
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share of both, although the story is told only from Angus' view.

I enjoyed reading this, although it took me a long time to do so. The words and word pictures are a luxury for a reader. It invites you to stop and ponder, consider and think about the situations and the people. Doig never makes any of his characters too perfect for their own good. He presents them as real people, who grow, stumble and persevere. Sometimes this is painful, you want to shake them by the shoulders; but it is honest and in the end you love them in spite of themselves. Speaking as a person who had pioneering relatives in this era, and knew them as a young girl, it is easy to imagine that this book represents them well.
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LibraryThing member kukulaj
Splendid family saga. Rob and Angus emigrate together from Scotland to Montana at age 19. The book covers about 30 years, 1890 to 1920, of their relationship as sheep ranchers. Their lovers, their wives, their children. There's not much plot here, just the ups and downs of frontier living. It's
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very richly written, evocative.
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LibraryThing member BoundTogetherForGood
Slow at the beginning, to give you the needed backstory, I'm glad I stuck with it. Once it picks up, the telling is similar to the Montana Whistling Series by Doig.
LibraryThing member laytonwoman3rd
This is the story of two friends from Nethermuir, Scotland, who decided to take a chance on a new life in America in 1889. Rob Barclay was the most enthusiastic, and he had a prosperous relative already established in Montana who sent money home every Christmas---surely he'd be able to give two
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eager young men a grand start. Angus McCaskill was slightly more cautious, but ultimately took the plunge into steerage along with Rob. Their adventures with homesteading, sheep ranching, schoolrooms and matrimony make marvelous reading, as usual with Doig. This one I found a little more heart-wrenching than others of his; there is sadness, loss, bitterness and regret along with loyalty, duty, dancing and love at work here, and its realism is remarkable. I subtracted a star for the fact that I could see several plot developments coming in the last third of the book, and then put half of it back because it was all done so darned well, and because when all was said and done, our Angus realized what was critically important to him and clung to it..
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LibraryThing member LyndaInOregon
Okay, this is a real review of the book I actually read. (Initially, I had a copy of the Penguin edition, and it was the first book I've ever given up on because of its physical design. It was set in an extremely heavy and ornate font, at about a 9-point size, and I could only read it for a few
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minutes before developing an eyestrain headache.)

Once I dumped the eyesight-killer and laid hands on a large-print copy, things went much better!

Reviews mention that this book is part of Doig's "Montana Trilogy", but it stands very well alone. It follows the lives of two young Scotsmen who emigrate to Montana in the late 1800s and homestead in the beautiful but cruel "Two Medicine River" country where he has set other work. (Readers of "The Bartender's Tail" will recognize much of the locale.)

The friends become business partners, but things begin to sour when Rob Barclay brings his young sister over from Scotland, with an eye toward making a match between her and Angus McCaskill, not realizing that Angus has fallen deeply in love with another woman. Over the years, their relationship waxes and wanes as together with their families they try to survive in an unforgiving land.
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LibraryThing member aliciamalia
English Creek is quite good - good enough that I went right out and got the second book in the trilogy (Dancing at the Rascal Fair). The action in Dancing actually takes place before that of its predecessor, and I enjoyed it much more. It was oddly satisfying to read about people when you already
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know much of their outcome. The second book also explains the history and populating of the "two medicine country", which adds a lot of depth to the series (in many ways, the land is the subject of the book, more so than the people). I just picked up the third book - full report to come on that next month.
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LibraryThing member m.belljackson
There's Everything to love about this ENGLISH CREEK backstory, form Ivan Doig's vivid and compelling descriptions
of The Two Medicine land and its ever-changing weather to the engaging and honest characters.

Where it slips, and loses a half star, is allowing Adair to insistently refer to herself in
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the third person,

As well, there is no explanation at all why good old Anna did not prepare Angus by simply writing to him from her
new summer of lust with Isaac. That alone should have made him let go of his eternal Anna obsession.

From the opening death of the beautiful horse Ginger to many character's deaths,
none was less necessary to the plot than my favorite character, Lucas Barclay.

Many readers may still be singing along with "DANCING AT THE RASCAL FAIR"!
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