English Creek is Ivan Doig’s fourth substantial book in the last six years. With the publication in 1978 of This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind, Doig’s reputation as one of the most important Western writers of his generation was established. This personal memoir of Montana’s high-plains country, centered on White Sulphur Springs, Montana, where Doig was born, portrays the life of the cowboy as it was lived in the first half of the twentieth century along the eastern slope of the Continental Divide. This book, which was nominated for the National Book Award in contemporary thought, is already considered a classic, and it remains Doig’s most powerful rendering of his self-proclaimed theme of “the American people and the westering expanse of this continent they happened to come to.”
This House of Sky was followed in 1980 by Winter Brothers, another impressive nonfiction narrative in which Doig explores the history of the Puget Sound area through personal comments on the late nineteenth century journals of James Gilchrist Swan. Doig, who holds a doctorate in history from the University of Washington, has the ability to make facts meaningful, to place in perspective the experiences of men who lived one hundred years ago, so that the reader can understand how the past works in the present; Winter Brothers was made into a public-television documentary. Doig’s next book, The Sea Runners (1982), was his first attempt at fiction. This historical adventure novel, set in 1853, concerns four indentured workers who flee the Russian settlement of New Archangel (Sitka) toward freedom, twelve hundred miles southward down the coastline to the territories of the United States. Although the book is rich in historical detail, and very readable, it is not as impressive as the first two. Critic Kerry Ahearn found history and geography to be the true centers of the novel. In English Creek, Doig is more successful at integrating characterization and plot with his basically nonnarrative interests, and thus this novel is much stronger as a work of art.
With English Creek, Doig returns to the Montana ranch country of This House of Sky. He renders it with affectionate detail, and readers from the high-plains Rocky Mountain area will value it in the same way that Appalachian residents value Harriet Arnow’s The Dollmaker (1954) or Texans value Larry McMurtry’s Horseman, Pass By (1961) and The Last Picture Show (1966). The appeal of Doig’s story, however, is not merely regional: In this fictionalized account of one summer in the life of a fourteen-year-old boy, Doig admirably presents the experiences of the protagonist in his relationships to his family, to the great presence of the land, and to the rural community of which he is a part. Nevertheless, Doig does not equal the complex, moral dimensions of This House of Sky. The people in that nonfiction narrative are sharply defined in their fierce independence, both for good and for ill; in contrast, the characterizations in English Creek lack the disquieting moral complexities of a classic.
In part, this weakness derives from Doig’s choice of a narrator: Jick McCaskill is both Doig’s greatest success as a fictional character and one reason that the novel does not fully achieve its potential. In his first-person narration, Jick, who in 1984 was sixty years old, re-creates the summer of his fourteenth year, the summer of 1939, which was a turning point in the life of his immediate family. The major events of that summer, however, do not revolve around Jick’s actions; rather, the initial focus for the novel’s plot is on the decision of his older brother, Alec, to leave the family for the life of a cowboy and to marry the local belle, Leona Tracy, instead of attending Montana State College in Bozeman. Jick’s parents are disheartened by Alec’s decision, and an immediate split occurs between them and Alec. Alec, who is blessed with a keen mind and multiple talents, was to be the first member of the McCaskill family to attend college. As it turns out, Alec does not marry Leona—she returns to high school for her senior year—but Alec is not reconciled with his parents, and Jick recognizes the reason: “So much did my brother want to be on his own in life, he would put up with a bad choice of his own making rather than give in to someone else’s better plan for him.”
Alec’s fierce independence is typical of Doig’s ranchers; in part, it results from the nature of their lives on the land, which provides the great freedom that forms them and which can also destroy them. In thinking back to the original settlers of the area, Jick realizes, “Distance and isolation create a freedom of sorts. The space to move in according to your own whims and bents. Yet it was exactly this freedom, this fact that a person was a speck on the earth’s sea, that must have been too much for the settlers.” Such a passage recalls Willa Cather’s homesteaders in My Ántonia (1918); certainly, Doig is working within that tradition. In addition, there is the further similarity between the first-person narrators: Cather’s Jim Burden and Doig’s Jick McCaskill are both sensitive young protagonists who have a deep love for the land and its people. In Cather’s novel, however, these motifs are more completely integrated into the narrative flow.
Jick senses Alec’s dilemma—“Alec and his insistence on the independent life. Was it worth the toll he was paying? I could not give an absolute affidavit either way”—yet Jick himself does not embody that dilemma; Doig’s choice of Jick as the first-person narrator, consequently, does not allow Doig to explore fully the problem he poses. This limitation, as a consequence of which the narrator is not the primary focus of the moral choice around which the events of the novel are structured, is also evident in the other major plot line in the book, concerning the relationship between Jick’s father, who is the forest ranger of the Two Medicine National Forest, and Stanley Meixell, his former mentor, who was the original ranger, the legendary figure who drew up the boundaries for the national forest. (Doig not only has great knowledge of the land itself but also is very insightful regarding the...
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