The Bartender's Tale

by Ivan Doig

Hardcover, 2012

Call number




Riverhead Books (2012), Edition: 1st Printing, 400 pages


Running a venerable bar in 1960 Montana while raising his twelve-year-old son, single father Tom Harry finds his world upended by the arrival of a woman from his past and her beatnik daughter, who claims Tom as her father.

User reviews

LibraryThing member MrsLee
This is the story of Tom Henry, a most excellent bartender, and a father who did his best. It is also the story of his son, Russell (named after Charles Russell, one of my favorite western artists), and how he came to know his father. The setting is the town of Gros Ventre, Montana, the year,
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Ivan Doig has given us a word picture of a year in a small rural American town. I love the way the character's histories gradually unfold, some mysteries being solved, others not, left to ruminate on. The father/son aspect of this story is wonderful, but so is the boy's discovery of friendship with a girl, his fears of the unknown and his insecurities. The dad is a solid mystery. The strong, silent type to the tee.
I reveled in the three days it took me to read this book, not wanting to finish because I so enjoyed the company within. It is a book full of principles, but absent of preaching. A complete delight.
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LibraryThing member streamsong
Given to relatives to be raised when he was just a baby, Rusty was reclaimed by his father, Tom Harry, just before he started school. Tom, who first appeared as a bartender in Doig’s book, Bucking the Sun, takes him to the tiny Montana town of Gros Ventre where Tom spends most of his waking hours
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as the owner and proprietor of the Medicine Lodge Bar. There Rusty and his father form a loving if unconventional family. Rusty grows up in the back room of the bar, making balsa wood airplane models on a desk next to a hidden air vent which allows him to hear the outpourings of the patrons as they unload to the hard listening bar tender.

But in the summer of 1960 in Rusty’s 12th year, changes arrive. A feisty new girl, Zoe, arrives in town and becomes Rusty’s best friend and co-conspirator in adventure. Del appears with the intention of recording the oral history of the 1930’s construction of the Fort Peck Dam and needs Tom to help unlock the stories from the New Deal boomtowns that sprang up along the reservoir’s banks. Then a taxi dancer (pay for dances by the minute, just like a taxi) from those days appears at the Medicine Lodge presenting Tom with a previously unheard of daughter.

Although I found the first half of this book somewhat slow, the second half picks up quite a bit as changes come to Rusty. It’s a wonderful coming-of-age story as Rusty finds out that his father and the adult world are more complex than childhood experiences allow and that even in small town life stories go deep.

As always, Doig’s characters pop into life in three dimensions with Doig’s rich prose as Doig tells a tale that you’ll remember.
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LibraryThing member pennsylady
Let's set the stage for an endearing tale.
It's the summer of 1960 in the small town of Gros Ventre (fictional), in northern Montana.
The story is told through the eyes of 12 year old Rusty, now grown to adulthood.

I loved the book's introduction of the characters:

"Tom Harry has a streak of frost in
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his black pompadour and a venerable bar called The Medicine Lodge
and son, Rusty, an “accident between the sheets”, whose mother deserted them both years ago."
As a very young child, Rusty lived with Aunt Marge's family but for the past 6 years, he loved the bachelorhood that he and "pop" now shared.
They managed just fine .
But the summer of 1960 was life changing.....
The entrance of outsiders and eyeopening events will upend their lives.

Ivan Doig's characters became a part of my life...hence the 5★.
I couldn't wait to continue Tom and Rusty's saga.
David Aaron Baker's narration was excellent.

I highly recommend this narrative and if audio is available, you're in for a special treat.
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LibraryThing member auntmarge64
A leisurely and lovingly-told story of a boy growing up in 1960 in northern Montana, entranced by his “perfect bartender” father and by just about everything else around him.

The summer Rusty turns 12 is monumental in a life already marked by 6 years of living with somewhat resentful relatives
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followed by six with his remarkable father Tom Harry, proprietor of the Medicine Lodge, a small-town bar with a back room full of treasures given in trade by broke sheepherders and other locals. During this summer a variety of people who will shape Rusty’s future all come and go through town. Zoe, whose parents have just purchased the local diner, becomes Rusty’s best friend, and they amuse themselves in the bar’s back room among the accumulated hoard, playacting and watching the goings-on in the bar through a secret vent between the rooms. Del, a collector and recorder of “Lost Voices”, arrives with a grant from the Library of Congress to interview survivors of a nearby dam collapse from years ago, when Tom was owner another legendary bar, the Blue Eagle. Del hopes to convince Tom to go with him to a reunion of the mudjacks and others who worked on the dam, to introduce him around and convince people to be taped for posterity. And, at the reunion, a shock: Proxy, a taxi dancer from the Blue Eagle days, shows up to announce that she and Tom have an adult daughter who’s coming to the Medicine Lodge to learn the bartending business.

These are truly memorable characters who will haunt the reader and surely lead to a larger readership for Doig’s earlier novels, including [Bucking the Sun], in which Tom and Proxy make an appearance during their Blue Eagle days.
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LibraryThing member Esta1923
"The Bartender's Tale" by Ivan Doig

Although Doig fans will remember bartender Tom Henry and taxi dancer Proxy Duff, notable characters from "Bucking the Sun," two precocious children steal the show in this newest book. Rusty and Zoe meet at just the right time to watch (and analyze) a tangled web
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of circumstances unfold (and sometimes unravel).

The children eat at her family's restaurant but much of their time is spent above Tom's bar where they eavesdrop while working on model airplanes. "Swuft" is Zoe's term for being brainy and sensible, and they measure grownups by her standard.

The novel's 387 pages are, we realize, Rusty's summary of his life. Sharing his account we've learned to fish, have seen history in the making, and perhaps gained an appreciation of dam builders, bartenders, and others who are footnotes to our country's history.

The Two Medicine country of other Doig novels is revisited here. I reread his books, especially "Dancing at the Rascal Fair" with its extraordinary bartender, and his beautiful nonfiction: "This House of Sky," "Winter Brothers," and ''Heart Earth."
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LibraryThing member jlafleur
I was not familiar with Ivan Doig, perhaps because I live at the other end of the country in Maine. That was my loss, as I have discovered from reading The Bartender's Tale. The characters and countryside are vividly and lovingly described. Doig is a master storyteller. He brings a unique spin on
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the classic coming of age story while gradually revealing some quirky family secrets. I will definitely seek out his earlier works, which have drawn high praise from other reviewers.

One of the best books I've read this year.
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LibraryThing member msbaba
Ivan Doig is celebrated as one of the most accomplished writers of American Western literature. But for me, he has always been far more than that: he is simply a master of literary prose—an accomplished literary author who just happens to set most of his novels in the American West. He uses
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words, artfully and seemingly without effort, to breathe life into his characters and the world they inhabit. When you come away from one of his novels, you feel like you’ve just experienced a slice of reality truer than your own existence. His books leave you with a feeling of intense intimacy and wholeness. His characters linger. They take up residence in your life, their tales and values becoming part of your own useful reservoir of knowledge.

Doig’s most recent novel, The Bartender’s Tale, does not disappoint. It is another outstanding work of powerful emotional depth.

The novel is set in north central Montana in the same fictional world that grounds a great deal of Doig’s previous works. The place is Two Medicine country and its anchoring town Gros Ventre. It is sagebrush country rimmed by snow-capped mountains and crisscrossed by leafy green creeks with ancient towering trees.

The book is set in 1960, a time when this corner of Big Sky country is home to herders, drovers, farmers, and ranchers. It is an odd corner of America that is rapidly changing—a remnant from the past. It is a world of rainbow trout, hay, alfalfa, sheep, and cattle. The people are rugged and self-sufficient. When they want company, they make their way to the town’s one reputable watering hole, the legendary Medicine Lodge. There, the saloon’s proprietor and bartender is Tom Harry.

Although the book is entitled The Bartender’s Tale, it is really a family saga about a father and a son, and more importantly, the relationship that binds them together. The book is narrated by Tom’s son, Rusty, as he reminisces about the fateful summer when he turned 12 years old and his whole universe became unglued by a series of unusual events. It is not important in the overall scheme of things for a reader to know beforehand what events Rusty encounters during this fateful summer. There is considerable charm in discovering these events as they are revealed in the tale. It is enough to say that longstanding mysteries are resolved; legends are discovered to be grounded in fact; history unfolds and casts its net over many human lives; love blossoms and ends abruptly; love blossoms and grows; old heroes are rediscovered; and new heroes appear when we least expect it. It is the stuff of ordinary life. What’s crucial in the end are values…the values that characters bring to the little and big challenges that life throws in their paths and that form the basis for how they deal with those situations in the end.

Simply put, it is the story of the summer of Rusty’s transformation from childhood to adolescence, and the summer that the son discovers just how heroic is father really is.

Many women don’t read Western literature because they believe it is too heavily weighed with male themes. Doig is an exception. As I said in the beginning of this review, I consider him to be more of an author of authentic American literature than a writer of Western literature. Women should not hesitate to read this novel. Doig is a writer of great emotional depth. His works appeal strongly to both men and women.

Frankly, I loved this novel. Doig continues to uplift and inspire me. So far, I’ve not found one of his novels that I would not highly recommend. Someday, I hope to read them all.

Added Notes For Fans:
In Bartender’s Tale, Doig returns to a number of the themes, settings, and characters from his previous novels and nonfiction works. His fans will recognize these and delight in their discovery. The Bartender’s Tale is complete in its own and should not be seen in any way as a sequel. As Doig fans know, the author manages a large cast of characters in his fictional Montana world and these characters age, change, and often make reappearances in different novels at varying times in their lives. For his fans, this intensifies the reality of his fiction. For the most part Doig appears to be steadfast about his characters’ values. Although his characters change, grow, and age, their inherent values remain intact and true throughout their lifetimes. For Doig, that’s what counts.

For those fans who’ve read Doig’s Bucking the Sun, Tom Harry is the same character who owned the Blue Eagle Tavern next to the Fort Peck Dam project site in 1938 and, of course, Proxy, the sheriff, and a few other minor characters make significant reappearances, too. In “The Bartender’s Tale, we get to revisit these characters some 22 years later and see how, and if, they’ve changed.
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LibraryThing member GarySeverance
Ivan Doig's new novel is a very good story narrated by the son of a bar owner in a town in Montana with an interesting history. At age 12, Rusty is reunited with his father Tom after being placed with his aunt to be raised in Arizona at age 6. Tom arrives unexpectedly at Marge's house and resumes
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his duty of raising his son and running his locally prosperous bar in Montana. The Medicine Lodge is an old fashioned, large, and open-spaced drinking establishment with animal heads on the wall, a polished bar, a tin ceiling, and ornate shelving behind the bar stacked with bottles of hard liquor. The main liquid product sold is Great Falls Select beer, nicknamed "Shellac" by the locals: businessmen, ranchers, sheepherders and a smattering of tourists passing through on their way to state parks. The bar's main social attraction is Tom, who always has time to listen carefully and respond wisely to patrons.

This is the stage where the characters interact on a daily basis and reminisce about their family histories, the tales of the town, the popularity of the bar, and the legacy of FDR's WPA programs that affected the rural area during the Great Depression. Mr. Doig describes the evolution of life in the area in a detailed and even-paced narrative that lets readers relax and enjoy an account of the American West in the 20th Century. The characters' barroom conversations describe family dramas of separation, reunions of old friends and foes, fear of breaking social relations apart again, and tough tasks of giving up relationship-threatening obsessions. The historical context includes: the work ethic of the Great Depression, the excitement and fear caused by radical economic change, and the inevitable challenge of rethinking the past in order to solve current social problems. The surrounding environment includes rugged mountains, broad lakes, trout filled streams, man made earthen dams, extensive sheep grazing land, and rustic buildings (like the Medicine Lodge) that fit rather than interrupt the environment

I read one other novel by Ivan Doig, Work Song, that I liked very much. The Bartender's Tale is broader in scope related to character development and description of societal evolution in the American West. Mr. Doig's new novel is American to the core emphasizing a sense of adventure, personal responsibility, care for the environment, individual courage, social endurance, and recovery from adversity. It gives readers hope that we all will learn lessons from our current challenges and know that, in the words of William Faulkner, "after the last ding dong of doom has rung and resounded, man (Americans - my word) will prevail."
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LibraryThing member charlottem
I loved this book. Mr. Doig is a wonderful story teller. I bought the hardcover and checked out the audio book from the library. The audio book is excellent.
LibraryThing member Beamis12
Able to take the mundane and make it impressive is a talent that Doig has in droves. Montana in the late fifties and early sixtes, a story built around the connection between a father and young son, and a bar which the father owns becomes the setting for this story. IT is about the connections
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between people, the fears a young motherless boy has and an old fashioned way of life. I enjoyed his writing, though at times I felt the pacing was off, at some points in the story lagged but all in all I enjoyed this very much.
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LibraryThing member TheJeanette
No one can turn the mundane to magic better than Ivan Doig, and the proof is in THE BARTENDER'S TALE. This is the fourth Doig novel I've read, and it may just be my favorite. Pull up a barstool, order a Select beer, and prepare to be enchanted.

Russell "Rusty" Harry is our narrator, an old man who
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takes us back to the summer of 1960 in the fictional town of Gros Ventre, Montana. Rusty was twelve that summer, and he and his father Tom had been living together in splendid bachelorhood for six years. They ate tomato soup for breakfast, fished for rainbow trout with chicken guts for bait, and kept the customers happy at the Medicine Lodge, where Tom Harry was known as the best bartender in Montana.

Twelve going on thirteen is an age of wonder. We're still young enough to enjoy childish pleasures, but old enough to begin snooping around in the adult world, collecting information the grown-ups have withheld from us all our lives. For Rusty, that adolescent excitement is heightened by the arrival of several eye-opening outsiders as the summer progresses.

Delano Robertson is a young man obsessed with regional vernacular. He shows up in Gros Ventre with his Gab Lab, ready to record the Missing Voices of the old-timers. His enthusiasm and good nature help him weather the embarrassing moments of initiation into Montana life.

Zoe Constantine moves into town from Butte when her parents take over the local diner. She and Rusty become co-conspirators as only twelve-year-olds can do. They spend the summer polishing their acting skills and eavesdropping on the Medicine Lodge patrons through a hidden vent.

Most disturbing of all, Proxy Shannon purrs on in from Reno driving a bright red Cadillac, with her grown daughter Francine in tow. Is Francine Tom's love child and Rusty's half-sister? And while we're on the subject of parenthood, why won't Tom tell Rusty who his mother was? Vague answers will no longer satisfy Rusty.

Quirky and complex characters, playful dialogue, and small-town shenanigans carry us through that summer of 1960 in the shadow of Glacier National Park. Adjust your gears to allow for a slower pace, and give yourself the time to fall in love.

The end of the story is not sad, but I cried when I finished. I had spent almost three weeks with these characters as my companions, and I didn't want to leave them. That's the sorcery of Ivan Doig. He invites us into his imaginary world and makes us feel so welcome that we would gladly trade our real lives for the chance to be one of his characters.
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LibraryThing member rexmedford
Reading Doig's works is always a pleasure. He is truly a master of his craft; the easy flow of words, whic develop his story and the charachters within so fully, but without pretention. You feel like they are family, or at least good friends, and if you havent been where they are, you certainly
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long to go.
From the first paragraph, I felt like I had slipped into my most comfortable shoes, and sunken into my recliner for a new adventure....for those of us who are baby boomers, the settings are familiar, and you are transported to another time and place by his eloquent word. For those who are not boomers, there is history to be learned and although this is fiction, it is all about life in the American West. Just ask anyone who lived it.
There is a reason Mr. Doig has such a success and following of his works, and this latest novel shows that his talent has not waned; I think it a fantastic piece of American literature, and I DO look forward to more of this author.
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LibraryThing member Oregonreader
Doig returns again to Montana for the telling of this story and his characters grow out of this strong sense of place. Rusty is six when his single father retrieves him from the care of his aunt and takes him home to Gros Ventre where he owns a bar. The heart of the novel is how these two develop a
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life together. The story is told through Rusty's eyes and Doig has wonderfully captured the way in which a young boy views and interprets the adult world. I fell in love with these characters and wish I could read it again for the first time!
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LibraryThing member BookBully
How I miss the Ivan Doig of long ago. Compared to "The Whistling Season" his latest novel comes across as a wannabe. The voice is stilted and the atmosphere seemed over the top. I had difficulty finishing the book and admit to skimming the last 70 pages or so. Just to make sure I wasn't off my game
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I went back and read the opening chapter of "Whistling" and there it was - a genuine voice and descriptions that moved you right into the heart of the book.
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LibraryThing member charlottem
I loved this book. Mr. Doig is a wonderful story teller. I bought the hardcover and checked out the audio book from the library. The audio book is excellent.
LibraryThing member Copperskye
The Bartender’s Tale is the story of a father and son living in Two Medicine County, Mt, a familiar locale of Doig fans. It’s 1960 and twelve year old Rusty has recently come to live with his father, Tom Henry, the bartender of the title and the popular owner of the local saloon. Rusty spends a
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lot of time in the bar’s backroom listening through the air vent and learning the ways of his father and the town.

It took me a long time to warm up to this story despite its first person narration. I’ve read Ivan Doig’s The Whistling Season and Work Song and loved them both. Here, I had a difficult time feeling any connection to the characters and struggled to continue until almost the halfway point. I’m glad I stuck with it though, as it turned into a poignant coming of age story. Doig, as always, writes beautifully of Montana, as both that western state and Rusty face the changes in the world around them.
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LibraryThing member BALE
The Bartender’s Tale is a coming of age story written in the form of a (fictional) memoir. Doig seduces his reader right from the start when his protagonist states, “It is said it takes a good storyteller to turn ears into eyes, but luckily life itself sometimes performs that trick on us”.
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The author immediately informs us, he is going to take us on a lyrical journey, thru the mountainous region of small-town Montana, in the voice of Rusty, where we can share his family saga. Doig speaks like an unsentimental poet. He tells Rusty’s story without embellishment. Life, it is what it is. “You’ve got the play the hand you’ve been dealt.”

Doig weaves his lyrical prose into the fabric of Western American history, from prohibition to 1960. He speaks of the Depression, Roosevelt’s New Deal and its WPA’s Federal Writers Project and the building of Fork Peck Dam. There are times when people did what they had to in order to get by. Stories they would prefer to bury forever. It was a tough and fascinating time – a time of change. Doig pulls this history together seamlessly with the telling of Rusty and Pop’s tale.

In The Bartender’s Tale, Ivan Doig writes of something larger than the words and characters in his story. He writes of life itself. He brings together all the essential elements: a myriad cast of colorful characters, a plot filled with depth, lyrical writing and the soul of Western America. The scope of this novel is vast. It confirms the truth of the narrator’s adage - it takes a good storyteller to turn ones ears into eyes. Thus we find, in this novel, visual poetry.
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LibraryThing member kittenfish
Well, I have to admit this book took me forever to finish. The pace is very slow and it's not a story that you just devour because you're so intrigued and curious to what happens next. However, the characters did stay with me and I found myself thinking of them often. All in was a coming
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of age story that I enjoyed. I appreciated Rusty's point of view and I'm glad I stuck it out and finished the book even though I did it very, very slowly.
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LibraryThing member khiemstra631
Ivan Doig has written a marvelous book that harks back to his Dancing at the Rascal Fair and English Creek. When Doig is at his best, nobody turns a phrase quite like him, and he is at the top of his game with this novel. Tom Harry is a bartender in the small Montana town of Gros Ventre in the
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1950's. Unmarried, he has a six-year-old son, Rusty, parked at his sister Marge's house in Phoenix at the book's beginning. He shows up to claim Rusty just before school begins, and they begin to make a new life for themselves. The book covers the next six years, told from Rusty's point of view. Rusty is a great observer of human foibles, and where better to do so than from behind a vent overlooking a small-town bar? This one is not to be missed. Hurrah for Ivan Doig! I've waited a long time to see something of this quality come from his muse.
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LibraryThing member creynolds
Charming tale about the summer when the motherless protagonist turns 12 in 1960 in Montana where his father is a bartender. He becomes friends with a new girl in town, then an old flame of his father's blows into town bringing with her a 21-year-old daughter she says is his. She wants the girl to
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learn to bartend.

While I liked this one, it doesn't compare in my mind to The Whistling Season. I loved that book.
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LibraryThing member khuggard
Ivan Doig's The Whistling Season is one of my favorite books. I love it so much that I'm always a tad disappointed with Doig's other works. But once I got over the fact that The Bartender's Tale isn't the The Whistling Season, I was able to appreciate it on it's own merits. As always, Doig spins a
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tale that slowly meanders without being boring. His characters are endearingly memorable from Tom Henry the secretive bartender who won't swear in front of his son to Del the eager historian from the Library of Congress. This book is worth reading just to appreciate Doig's skill putting words on the page.
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LibraryThing member rglossne
Enjoyable coming of age story set in rural Montana in 1960, the summer that everything changed for Doig's narrator, Rusty. The characters were three dimensional, and at least in the case of bartender and father, Tom Harry, unforgettable. I am passing this book along to my friends as I had a good
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time reading it.
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LibraryThing member AudrieClifford
I am awed by the ability of this wonderful writer. I don't know how I had missed him through all the years he had been writing the previous books, but now look at all the wonderful reading I have to look forward to. Nobody can tell a tale set in a western state better than Mr. Doig.
LibraryThing member Rosareads
I love reading Ivan Doig books. The Bartender's Tale is a coming of age story told with the tenderness only Doig can bring to his characters.
LibraryThing member eembooks
If you’ve loved Ivan Doig in the past this book does not disappoint and a good place to start if you’ve never read any of his books. Tom Harry owns and runs a Montana bar while raising his son. Twelve year old Rusty learns the colorful Montana life listening to the bar room conversations
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through the vent in the backroom all the while trying learn the murky past of his absent mother.
Then enter the outrageous Proxy and her dramatic daughter Francine to confuse both Tom and Rusty. While the lore around the dam construction and disaster is dramatic my favorite scene is that of old Canada Dan and his hospital sheep. Some both expected and unexpected endings.
Overall special look at the 1950’s and 60’s as only Doig can do. September 2012
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