Dancing at the Rascal Fair by Ivan Doig

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Dancing at the Rascal Fair

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

DANCING AT THE RASCAL FAIR is the thirty-year chronicle of two young Scottish immigrants, Angus McCaskill and Rob Barclay, who trade the safety and sameness of the village of Nethermuir for the promise and adventure of homesteading in Montana in 1889. The struggle against the harsh conditions of the land becomes a metaphor for these two friends locked in a struggle with each other and with themselves.

Doig’s fictional world, the Two Medicine country of Montana, seems as real as the neighboring town of Gros Ventre and the eastern escarpment of the Rocky Mountains that shapes and tests its inhabitants. Two Medicine has a very particular community populated with characters who have their own turn of mind, from the freighter, Herbert, whose single interest in life is the quality of the “calico” (a local euphemism for the red-light ladies) in the towns along his way, to Rob’s uncle, Lucas Barclay, whose enthusiasm for building the future has not been diminished by the loss of his hands in a mining accident. Here, too, is the ageless Toussaint Rennie, who remembers the buffalo, and his Blackfeet wife, Mary Rides Proud; and Stanley Meixell, who brings the “Yew Ess Forest Service” to the Two Medicine country, where he watches over not “just the trees” but “the whole forest. The soil and water, too ... and the grass"--much to the consternation of the Scottish sheepmen, who nevertheless come to respect the ever-patient Meixell and his assistant ranger, “Mr. Winchester.”

The reader comes to know them all through the eyes of Angus McCaskill, whose personal narrative becomes an attempt to understand his ties to Robert Burns Barclay, his partner, his brother-in-law, his friend and his enemy. It is Angus who pauses on the quay in Scotland to find his bearings amid the tumult of the dockside and the tumult of his soul, while Rob sails into the future with confidence and no hint of regret. This difference between the ambitious and cocksure Rob and the poetic Angus is at the center of the novel. It is a story rich in detail, recounted in language that rings true, from the Scottish lilt of Lucas Barclay to the laconic speech of Stanley Meixell; above all, it is a story filled with “those word rainbows called poems.”

DANCING AT THE RASCAL FAIR is the second novel in a projected trilogy that began with ENGLISH CREEK; thus, lovers of Doig’s work have the pleasure of anticipation.