Ivan Doig’s 1978 This House of Sky. Landscapes of a Western Mind, is a superb literary memoir. Sky is equal parts captivating storytelling about Doig’s youth, and near poetic reflections on the meaning of childhood, how family and the land mold the soul, and the power, challenges and uncertainties intrinsic in “remembering.”
The title provides immediate insight: What more fitting description of Doig’s Montana childhood home than “house of sky?” “Landscapes of a western mind” underscores the essential nature of this place, both as one of the book’s central characters and as Doig’s ground of being.
We’re carried through his growing up years, a life divided between ever-changing Montana sheep and cattle ranches, and a series of near extinct high plains crossroads, where he boards for school. He speaks eloquently (and at times hilariously) of saloons, neighbors’ libraries, blizzards, cowboys, cafes, sheepherders, teachers, local characters. From his (mostly) motherless childhood, his father and maternal grandmother emerge as bedrock and beacon.
While the stories are mesmerizing and alone worth the reading, it is the musings, extended italicized reveries at the end of each chapter, that make the book more than just an exceptionally well written reminiscence of a hardscrabble ranch upbringing. It is in these italics where the prose takes flight past high class storytelling and into poetry. Swept up in dreamlike words, this reader found she too “remembered” the story, not in the particulars but in the universal fable which is growing up.
So while I did not live on the Montana high plains, sleep for months on a davenport in a stranger’s front room, or herd 4000 head of sheep 40 miles to summer pasture, I too was a child once, mystified by the vagaries of the adults around me, trying to figure out the logic of their grown-up ways. And like Doig, when I peer back into those “before times” for clues, I too see, at times, only dimly. As he describes it all too well: “Memory, the near neighborhood of dream, is almost casual in its hospitality.” (p.106)
This House of Sky. Landscapes of a Western Mind by Ivan Doig. Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, Publishers. New York. 1978. 314 pgs.