Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Book Review: English Creek, by Ivan Doig


Title: English Creek
Author: Ivan Doig, read by Scott Sowers
Publisher: originally Aetheneum Books, 1984 (339 pages); Audio by Recorded Books, 2010.
Source: Library digital collection

Publisher's Summary:
In this prizewinning portrait of a time and place -- Montana in the 1930s -- that at once inspires and fulfills a longing for an explicable past, Ivan Doig has created one of the most captivating families in American fiction, the McCaskills.

The witty and haunting narration, a masterpiece of vernacular in the tradition of Twain, follows the events of the Two Medicine country's summer: the tide of sheep moving into the high country, the capering Fourth of July rodeo and community dance, and an end-of-August forest fire high in the Rockies that brings the book, as well as the McCaskill family's struggle within itself, to a stunning climax. It is a season of escapade as well as drama, during which fourteen-year-old Jick comes of age. Through his eyes we see those nearest and dearest to him at a turning point -- "where all four of our lives made their bend" -- and discover along with him his own connection to the land, to history, and to the deep-fathomed mysteries of one's kin and one's self.

Really, after that summary, what could I add? This IS "a witty and haunting narration," and I will add engaging, humorous, and poignant. Doig manages to tell the story of a family and an entire region through the events of a single summer seen through the eyes of one 14-year-old boy. Admittedly, the narrator is looking back at it from his old age, so there is a strong filter of mature insight (which is why it is definitely an adult novel, not YA. It isn't that it has as much sex or swearing in it as many teen novels do, it's that the perspective is ultimately an adult one).

Doig's writing is, for want of a better word, lyrical. Or maybe I just mean that he seems always to light on the mot juste, and without effort (am I envious? Yeah, maybe a little!) (I am also aware that it is nothing like effortless from Doig's end. He's just good enough to make me feel it was inevitable when I read it).

I pulled out just one example that struck me at the time: Jick is reflecting on the sheepherders in the Two Medicine National Forest, and the ways in which they occupy themselves--reading, building pointless cairns, carving. But then he mentions the others, the ones who "couldn't be bothered with pastimes. They just lived in their heads, and that can get to be cramped quarters." And we know those are the ones who are more than a little crazy, and we understand why.

Mr. Sowers' narration lives up to the writing. He has just the right accent (Montana with just a hint of the Scots burr that Jick inherits from his parents), and develops each character clearly and distinctly. I had no trouble following--I couldn't turn it off!

As always, for those who love historical fiction, Montana, the American West, and great writing. I can say that listening as well as reading a book like this is a good way to understand even better why the language works.

Full Disclosure: I checked English Creek out of my digital library, and received nothing from the writer or publisher in exchange for my honest review.  The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

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