Last week before I heard author Ivan Doig had died of cancer, a customer relayed a great personal story about crossing the Sierra at age 14 with cows and a pack string in early spring. The snow got so deep they had to put the little calves into pack bags with their little faces poking out and let the biggest mule break a trail through the snow to get through. It was a great story, and I can’t do it justice. After reading Ivan Doig’s obituaries about his constant habit of carrying a notebook and jotting down good stories and phrases, I could just picture him in my store taking down notes to include another colorful story in a novel someday. What I, and so many fans, love about his work is how he captures those stories of unique but completely believable characters dealing with the land and the elements. Of course he has cowboys and plenty of sheepherders, but all the other individualistic characters that make up the remote regions are there too, in perfect accents and detail. The characters are there sometimes by choice sometimes by happenstance, but it is never recreation. It is full on living and making a living in a hard place as best they can.
When we were agonizing over a name and corresponding image for our new store location, Ivan Doig was one of a small group of authors I kept at the top of my list for the type of regional Western emphasis I wanted to infuse through the new store – a regional emphasis that is very much tied to the land and characters shaped by the landscape. Of course our landscape includes the Sierra peaks and lakes, the glamour girls of the local scenery, but it also includes the Whites and Panamint Ranges, Silver Peak and Montgomery Pass, Adobe Valley and Keeler. Literature is said to put the whole world in reach, and it does, but I can’t house all of it in one store (valiant effort though if I do say so). Instead I want to increasingly emphasize what makes the Owens Valley and Western Nevada unique and special and worth calling home, or at least visiting. Ivan Doig’s stories take place in Montana and the Northern Rockies, not geographically that close to our locale, but the remote and vast lands he describes are plenty familiar. He would recognize my Range & River region I think, and thanks to his 16 wonderful books, we can all recognize his.
If you have not yet read any of Doig’s works, I think starting with his first book, and memoir, This House of Sky would be the best idea. It is a painful but beautiful story of tough, tough people. I typically shy away from ANYTHING described as painful, but I loved this book even if it made me cry. It was honored as a National Book Award finalist in 1979. In fictional works, he is probably best known for Dancing at The Rascal Fair, part of the McCaskill Family trilogy of homesteading Scots emigrants in western Montana, and The Whistling Season, a New York Times bestseller in 2006, a tribute to rural school teachers, set farther east in Montana. With bestselling author status and eleven fine books to his credit, Doig was awarded the Wallace Stegner prize for literature in 2007. The Bartender’s Tale came out in 2012, and is one of my favorites. It’s written from the perspective of a 12 year old boy who is trying to figure out complex family relationships along with his own place in the world. You will love the father and son in this one, and the piles of stuff in the barn, don’t miss it. Doig’s sixteenth book Last Bus to Wisdom, will come out posthumously this summer and will return to the McCaskill’s Two Medicine Country with another precocious 12 year old’s story. I’m sure it will be wonderful. Doig’s website is very personable, with Readers’ Group discussion questions, synopsis, and background on each of his novels – don’t pass up that fine resource either if you want to fully appreciate his books.
Every obituary from The Missoulan to The New York Times identifies Doig as a fine writer of the American West, which is what I love about him as well. I want to leave you with his own words though, from his website, on the subject. Of course, he nailed it.
One last word about the setting of my work, the American West. I don’t think of myself as a “Western” writer. To me, language—the substance on the page, that poetry under the prose—is the ultimate “region,” the true home, for a writer. Specific geographies, but galaxies of imaginative expression—we’ve seen them both exist in William Faulkner’s postage stamp-size Yoknapatawpha County, and in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s nowhere village of Macondo, dreaming in its hundred years of solitude. If I have any creed that I wish you as readers, necessary accomplices in this flirtatious ceremony of writing and reading, will take with you from my pages, it’d be this belief of mine that writers of caliber can ground their work in specific land and lingo and yet be writing of that larger country: life.