Posts Tagged ‘Ivan Doig’

Last Bus to Wisdom by Ivan Doig. Riverhead Books. New York. 2015. 453 pp.

51S9z5jS6mL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Last Bus to Wisdom is the last novel Ivan Doig completed before he died in April, 2015. Losing him is a great bereavement for any reader who loves the West as much as he did. I count myself a “Doigie”—someone who has always welcomed his latest cast of characters into my life. To know that there will be no more is a great personal loss. Still, there is always the reacquainting that comes with re-reading great writing. There is always something new to discover.

This book is about a red-haired 11 year old, much like Doig himself at 11 must have been. Thrust off his beloved Montana ranch in summer of 1951 Donal is sent to live with an unknown great-aunt in Wisconsin while his grandma/guardian recouperates from an operation for “lady problems”. His adventures begin on the dog bus aka the Greyhound that carries him from Great Falls to Manitowoc. Where the excitement continues and grows once his aunt sets him adrift again a few weeks later when she discovers that, even though Donal has the makings of a card-sharking canasta player, she can’t deal with his, well, boyness. More excitement ensues as Herman the German, his great-aunt’s sort-of husband, decides to join him, lighting out for the territory, as Huck Finn so famously described his heading out with Jim. There are obviously many more similarities between Donal and Huck offered by Doig in this marvelous tale of a boy, whose childhood will soon be behind him.

It is always Ivan Doig’s writing, his understanding of people and dialog, that drive his stories and make his often over-the-top characters perfectly acceptable. To me in this book it seemed that Doig, anticipating that this might be his last, threw in all the nuance and sly observations he’d garnered over the years, yet hadn’t had a chance to use before. So we’ve got canasta, radio soaps, cowboy and hobo lingo, wicker suitcases and sailor’s duffel bags, ties adorned with suggestive mermaids, countries made from toast, autograph books, arrowheads, bronc riders, even Jack Kerouac is featured in a cameo role! It felt like nothing was held back. And that is all to the good. It’s a book that speeds ahead at dog-bus-on-empty-highway speeds but never loses one thread, never misspeaks with accents or syntax. It is a joy to read.

I have seen in more than one place the mention of Doig as the next Wallace Stegner. I don’t know…Stegner always, it seems to me, needs to make a point. Doig is first and foremost there to tell stories of another, quieter time about how normal people make their way. It’s often zany and just a little bit pushing the envelope toward tall-tale-telling, but that’s a great gift he has given over and over.

And I, like millions of others, have always been more than happy to raptly listen.

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I scooped up Ivan Doig’s latest, Sweet Thunder, as soon as I discovered it had come out in late summer. It is part three of the saga of Morrie Morgan who readers follow as he cuts a swath across the Montana plains. Part charmer, part encyclopedia, part big city con artist escaped to the frontier, Morrie Morgan (aka Morgan Llewellyn) is a lovable rascal, not above stretching the law even as he wins the hearts of his K-8 ranch kid students, his landlady, a motley band of union copper miners, a librarian with a past, and his readers. This is not the real-life story of a Western legend, but it sure feels like it should be.

Doig_WS_5.inddIn The Whistling Season, we first meet Morrie in 1909, as he alights from the train near Marias Coulee, a tiny Montana hamlet, with his deceased brother’s wife Rose. The plot begins, immediately thickening, as Rose introduces Morrie as her brother (a convenient switch from in-law) to the widower Milliron and his three sons who have hired her as housekeeper. The headline of her newspaper advertisement—“Can’t cook but doesn’t bite.” (wordsmith Morrie’s idea)—had caught their collective eye.  Morrie ends up teaching for the year in the one room schoolhouse, where he changes most every student’s life.

7167918In the next book, Work Song, we catch up with Morrie again in 1919. This time he’s getting off the train in Butte, MT having spent the intervening ten years in Tasmania. In Butte, he intends to make his fortune in the copper mines. Instead he becomes a “crier”, a representative of the mortuary at funerals (particularly Irish ones) who offers consolation to the mourners  while over-imbibing their moonshine. After too many mornings after, Morrie quickly graduates to general factotum to Sandy Sandison, the town’s remarkable librarian and donor to the library of many of its fine first editions. In Morrie’s ever expanding role (including cooking the library’s books), he takes up with his landlady Grace and becomes deeply involved in the miners’ union as it resists attempts to undermine it by the International Workers of the World (IWW) while at the same time trying to throw off Anaconda’s “copper collar.”

In this latest book Sweet Thunder, it’s 1920 and Morrie is again disembarking from the train at the Butte station, this time with his bride. They’ve returned to take possession of a grand “gift”, Sandison’s Butte mansion, complete with Sandison, now a tenant. Morrie is pressed into service as the editorial writer for The Thunder, a brand new union newspaper which gives voice to the miners’ opposition to the copper company.17707627

A recurring cast of memorable characters comes and goes through the books. There’s Rabrab (most of the name Barbara—backwards), who first appears as a sixth grade student in The Whistling Season, only to reappear as Butte’s sixth grade teacher and fiancee of union leader Jared Evans. Sandy Sandison casts his giant shadow: “Samuel Sandison himself was nearly geographic, the great sloping body ascending from an avalanche of midriff to a snowy summit of beard and cowlick.” Paul Milliron, the eldest son and narrator in The Whistling Season, continues to be referred to, as does Rose, in the next two books. Grace, retired Welsh miners Griff and Hoop, and street waif Russian Famine occupy important roles in books two and three.

The continuing saga is worthy of reading solely for its own sake. Its twists and turns, its sly tricks and not-quite-legal escapades, set against the rough and ready Montana ranch land and mining city makes for page-turning excitement.

But it is really the writing that makes these books unforgettable. Doig has an exceptional sense of language, from rough Welsh dialect to graceful descriptions of the stark landscape of the high plains to the “Richest Hill on Earth”, that industrial anthill which was Butte. “Here I was once more in that western territory at the very edge of the map of imagination.”

I must confess at the beginning of Sweet Thunder I got annoyed with his frequent description of Grace’s hair as flaxen. But then it struck me. Of course!—this is exactly the right choice of word. It’s the flaxen hair of melodrama, here presented at its finest hour. Heroes, villains, scamps, big business money makers, goons, bootleggers, gamblers, even Halley’s comet and the 1919 World Series make cameo appearances.

These are wonderful stories from a master storyteller about the early twentieth century West. I can only hope Doig’s got Book Four in the works.

Here are some of my favorite quotes: 

“When needed at the desk, I happily stepped into that role of librarian as bartender of information.”


‘Giorgio is taking us to the matinee of the Eytalian opera company that’s in town….

Polly-athcy, they’re, doing,’ Hoop chimed in. ‘Something about a clown who bawls a lot. Should be better than it sounds.’ ”


“Sandison held up a stopping hand. Casting his eyes to the heavens, he intoned, ‘God of fools, here is a newspaperman with an opportunity to ride with the men who made Theodore Roosevelt president of the United States, and he’s scared of a little thing like climbing on a horse. Take him now, his work on earth is done.’ “    


 “Those who mine are all one race,  Born and bred ‘neath a tunnel brace; 

Down there deep we’re all one kind,  All one blood, all of one mind. 

                      I back you and you back me,  All one song in unity.”                                                                                                                          


The Books Reviewed:

The Whistling Season. Harvest Books. New York. paperback 2007. 345 pp. (originally published 2006.)

Work Song. Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group, USA. New York. 2010. 275 pp.

Sweet Thunder. Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group, USA. New York. 2013. 305 pp.

ps: Please visit Ivan Doig’s website: www.ivandoig.com. It’s about the most wonderful author’s site I’ve ever seen.

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The Orchardist, A Novel by Amanda Coplin. Harper Collins. New York. 2012. 426 pp.

I was pointed toward this book by Amazon as an “if you liked this” (in this case Ivan Doig’s The Bartender’s Tale which I did [like, that is] but not as much as many of his others including Work Song, a sly rousing captivating tale) then “you may like this”, the second “this” being The Orchardist.

I’m not sure how one led to the other. True both are set in the West…but Doig’s West is definitely the West of the Imagination. In The Bartender’s Tale Doig tells a story of 60s’ Montana where men are men and drive, if not cattle, at least pick ups and large-finned American cars.

The Orchardist cover

The Orchardist cover
© Harper Collins and Amanda Coplin

OTOH, The Orchardist, is just that, the story of William Talmadge—a fruit grower living a bachelor’s life in the late 1800s in a valley near Wenachee in Washington’s Cascades foothills. The plot grows slowly from horrifying circumstances and a tragedy which involves him in the lives of two runaway girls.

Without a doubt, it is a beautifully crafted book. Before the end of the first page the author has showcased her remarkable skill with words. She describes her protagonist first physically, then with this: “He regarded the world—objects right in front of his face—as if from a great distance. For when he moved on the earth he also moved in other realms.” This sets the framework, the mood, for the novel itself. The descriptions of landscape, the orchard and nature are lush: “She said: Tonight the sky is the color of new plums.” Wow.

For sure, this is a tragic story. And yet, and yet…something is missing. While I cared about each character in the abstract, I found I had no particular feeling for any one of them. The friends, sturdy neighbor Caroline Middey and mute Nez-Perce Clee (who made an enormous yet thankless personal sacrifice for his friend Talmadge) were, for me, more realistic and textured, and much more recognizable, than the central characters—William Talmadge and Jane, Della and Angelene Michaelson.

The story covers over fifty years—1857 through the early 1900s—and develops relentlessly, although the pace feels set by the orchard’s seasons. The denouement, when it comes, seems inevitable.

Perhaps a better comparison than Ivan Doig might be another of my favorite authors, Thomas Hardy—the accepted master of inevitability, fate. But I connect viscerally and directly with his doomed characters: particularly, someone with, some might say, a similar background to the Michaelsons—Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Alas I could not with The Orchardist’s William Talmadge or the girls become women who populated his isolated life.

Final call? Great writing for sure. Narrative satisfaction. Not so much.

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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.

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