(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

This novel, Ivan Doig’s sixth, continues the stories of the lives of some of the characters who populated an earlier novel, Ride with Me, Mariah Montana (1990), especially Mariah McCaskill and her younger sister, Lexa. The central character, however, is Mitch Rozier, a native of Montana transplanted to Seattle, who earns his living as a columnist for a weekly environmentalist newspaper published by a rich young friend of his. The central action takes place when Mitch is called to his small home town in Montana, ostensibly to hear the details of his father’s latest deal and to stop the old man from making another rash decision, in reality to learn that the old man is dying of leukemia and wishes to obtain Mitch’s agreement to dispose of his ashes.

This is the central source of conflict in Mountain Time, since Mitch’s reluctance to acquiesce in the old man’s plan ties him to the family home, while taking a leave of absence from the failing newspaper. Mitch’s absence, in turn, leads his lover, Lexa McCaskill, to abandon her catering business in Seattle temporarily and drive to Montana with her older sister, Mariah, who happens to be visiting Lexa when the younger woman decides to join her lover. Mariah is a professional photographer who is finishing a year’s travel around the world sponsored by Fuji Corporation.

Lyle tells his plan for disposal of his ashes to each of the three younger characters, making each swear not to tell the others. He wants Mitch, accompanied by the two women, to transport his ashes to an abandoned fire tower in the heart of the wilderness and to scatter the ashes there. As a young man, he had been part of a two-man crew which built the tower, but to Mitch, Lyle’s plan is a vain gesture, an attempt to impress others with what Lyle wishes them to think is his dedication to the wilderness and its preservation. To Mitch, the crowning irony is that Lyle wants his ashes strewn in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, named for a Forest Service ranger who was a dedicated defender of the wilderness. Lyle’s other plan is to sell some property, still a wild area, known as the Rozier Bench, to exploiters who would destroy its wild character, cutting down trees, prospecting for gas, oil, and mineral resources, and in general ruining it. He needs Mitch’s agreement to close this deal, but his real aim is to use the threat of selling the land to force Mitch to agree to his plan for his ashes.

This is only the most obvious of the several plot lines in Mountain Time; most of the others bear out the concern for the environment which is the underlying theme of the entire novel. For instance, one secondary plot line has to do with the relationship between Mitch and Lexa, which is under some stress. A flashback to one of their early encounters provides an opportunity for a view of the disastrous results of the historic oil spill caused by the wreck of the SS Exxon Valdez near the Alaskan shipping port of Valdez. Lexa and her aviator husband are involved in pathetically desperate efforts to rescue wildlife caught in the oil spill in Prince William Sound, while Mitch is sent to cover the story for his paper. Mitch at this point is divorced from his wife and estranged from his two children, and Lexa is bored with her marriage, so the connection they establish is no surprise to either of them, despite the disparity in their ages. The fact that they come from the same area of Montana makes their relationship more plausible, if not more suspenseful. The real bond between them, however, is the revulsion they feel at the destruction of native wildlife caused by the Alaskan pipeline.

A prominent aspect of the hostile relationship between father and son has its origin in an accident that occurred when Mitch was in his teens. For several summers he was one of a crew of young men hired by Lyle to clear rocks from fields full of the detritus left by glaciers at the end of the most recent ice age. Lyle’s negligence caused a loaded wagon to be driven over Mitch’s leg, breaking it in two places. Unable to work in the fields, Mitch is put to work keeping the books for his father’s enterprise. In the course of this employment, Mitch is involved in a dispute over wages when Lyle orders Mitch to pay a worker for days when Mitch knows the...

(The entire section is 1753 words.)