Sometimes the most breathtaking books are the hardest ones for me to review. Such a one is This House of Sky, Ivan Doig’s memoir of his growing up years in 1930-40s Montana. Few authors manage to sustain the pure language of poetry for over 300 pages, but Doig does. In 1975, after spending half the day reworking the opening sentence of his manuscript, he confides in his journal:
“It would be magnificent to do the entire book with this slow care, writing it all as highly charged as poetry–but will I ever find the time?”
And highly charged his writing is, from first page to last. Here’s an excerpt from page one:
“The stream flees north through this secret and peopleless land until, under the fir-dark flanks of Hatfield Mountain, a bow of meadow makes the riffled water curl wide to the west. At this interruption, a low rumple of the mountain knolls itself up watchfully, and atop it, like a sentry box over the frontier between the sly creek and the prodding meadow, perches our single-room herding cabin.”
The sheer beauty of Doig’s writing swept me along in a broad river of words. It wouldn’t have mattered so much what he was writing about. The subject matter happened to be the lost world of Montana–the stark, primordial land, and those who worked it. Doig’s memoir featured his sheepherding, Scottish-American cowboy father who taught his son everything he needed to know to survive off that land. Most impressively, this unschooled, hardscrabble father encouraged his son to attend the U. of Chicago and become a writer.
Steeped in the rich cadences of Montana ranch life, Doig succeeded in rendering his boyhood memories, manner of speaking, and cherished people into poetic language. And in this way, opened a window for us to a now vanished world.