Doig captures the passion and tenacity of turn-of-the-century immigrants struggling to build new lives amidst Montana's windswept Rockies. The tale unfolds into a contest of the heart between Anna Ramsay and Angus McCaskill--kept apart by obligations--as they and their stormy kin vie to tame the brutal land.
If you like Wallace Stegner, you like Doig. If you haven't read either, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.