Ivan Doig’s books are just a pleasure to read. I particularly like the scrupulous quality of his historical research; he works hard to get every detail right. I guess you would expect nothing less from a guy with a doctorate in history, something Doig completed before the siren call of memoir and fiction coaxed him away from the halls of academe.
I’ve talked about Doig’s books in a previous post. I want to briefly mention (or mention again) two other books that feature Morrie Morgan, the erudite troublemaker in “Sweet Thunder.” They are:
2006’s “The Whistling Season.” This book features Paul, a boy who loses his mother early. Into the emotional vacuum comes a brother/sister pair from the East. The sister becomes the family housekeeper and the brother, Morris (otherwise known as Morrie), takes over instruction in the rural community’s one-room schoolhouse, a place that occupies a central spot in the small community – horse paths from all over the county converge at the country school. Morris would return in Doig’s 2010 novel, “Work Song.” A prequel of sorts to “Sweet Thunder,” it’s also set in Butte Montana, the copper-mining capital of the world. This book begins the account of Morrie’s battles with the Anaconda mining company and its corrupt, union-busting ways.
Ivan Doig has lived in Seattle most of his adult life, but most of his books are inspired by his upbringing in Montana. This got me to thinking about how many wonderful books have been published by people who are in thrall to the spell that state casts. Here are a few: I’m trying to avoid repeating myself, because I’ve mentioned some authors such as the great Native American author James Welch before…but let me just slip in that I really loved James Welch’s novel “The Indian Lawyer.”
Ok; new territory:
“Legends of the Fall” by Jim Harrison. This has got to be one of my favorite books of all time; I believe I have read and reread it a dozen times. Harrison is a stupendously gifted writer. He told me in an interview that he wrote the title piece of this 1978 book in nine days. Nine days!
“Legends” is a trilogy of novellas, but its title work is considered a classic. The story of three brothers and their father in Montana during and after World War I, it starts with the tragic death of the youngest brother in the war and follows the ever-ascending cycles of tragedy that encircle the family.
The father, William Ludlow, is based on Harrison’s wife’s great-grandfather of the same name, an Englishman who helped lead Custer’s expedition into the Black Hills. The Native American family friend in “Legends,” One Stab, got his name from a scout employed by the real Ludlow.
The novel is mythic in its sweep and is totally without dialogue. It’s like a Greek tragedy…even the beginning has mythic resonance, like something out of Homer: “Late in October 1914 three brothers rode from Choteau, Montana to Calgary, Alberta to enlist in the Great War. . . .” The key character is Tristan, one of Ludlow’s sons, a sort of romantic outlaw who cannot help himself in containing his passions, whether they be for vengeance, justice or for one of his brother’s wives. This book covers 50 years in this star-crossed family in 87 pages –it’s a masterpiece of compression. Did I mention that I like this book? This is one case where you might have seen the movie first; the book is much, much, much better.
Another Montana writer I love is Tom McGuane. He is a razor sharp-hilarious writer whose books always have an undercurrent of darkness; people, especially men, are all too fallible in McGuane’s world. But the man writes about Montana’s natural beauty like no one else.
What book to recommend? I don’t know where to start. He writes superb nonfiction about horses, fishing, hunting – if you share any of these passions, try some of these books, such his book of essays, “Some Horses.”
One novel of his I loved was “Nothing But Blue Skies,” about a Montana cattle rancher whose marriage has broken up, and who descends into the usual McGuanian cycle of bad behavior and regret. (McGuane is a Montana rancher who raises cutting horses, who has had some epic episodes of bad behaviour in his past). One of the great things about McGuane is that his protagonists have very modern sensibilities, but they generally abide by an old-fashioned moral code and they live in Montana, a place that in some ways the modern world seems to have forgot, for which I suspect a lot of Montanans are grateful. There’s a lot of fishing and a lot of sex in this book, but Frank, the main character, has the gift or curse of self-awareness; he knows all too well when he’s screwing up.
Finally….this list is in danger of becoming top heavy with males, so I want to mention the wonderful writer Deirdre McNamer. Her novel “Red Rover” is about three Montana men who get swept up in World War II. Two become FBI agents (one works in Butte); one becomes a bomber pilot. The mysterious death of one of these men is resolved very late in the others’ lives. Part character study, part meditation on aging and destiny, and part mystery, “Red Rover” is a beautiful book.