Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Review :: This House of Sky :: Ivan Doig

If you want to see the country, there's no advice better than that of Peter Jenkins: Go on foot, with your life strapped to your back and, hopefully, a friend and a good camera by your side.  There's no other way to get to know the breadth and depth of the land on a personal basis.

But if cross-country backpacking isn't for you, Greyhound is a good second. Maybe crowded, usually behind schedule, often hot, cramped, prone to arguments and the occasional fistfight, Greyhound pushes travel up in your face (and in your nostrils). It's a journey not simply through miles and landscape but through people, the ones who get on and off at each stop for a smoke and chance to stretch out their legs.

I've just returned from a few weeks by bus, a pilgrimage to my birthplace to help my family reroof their secondhand farmhouse. As the bus moved me from the treed hills of Wisconsin through the cornfields of Minnesota and the stark, unending sky of North Dakota, I completed another journey: Ivan Doig's memoir, This House of Sky. My dad lent me the book with a high recommendations two years ago, and I first peeled back its cover somewhere in eastern Montana, that time by car, as we drove home. Two summers later, the time had come to see Doig through to the end.

I'm glad I did. Making the rounds of White Sulphur Springs' bars and cafes with Doig, riding miles of potholed highways in the Smith River valley, fighting the windblown drifts high in the Big Belt Mountains--these are all pieces of life, memories and stories I share with Doig. These people, these places, this way of life brings me home.

Doig often writes about the power of stories, the power of voices, turns of phrase, the brogue of his father, the forgotten asthmatic gasps of his mother.  Stories keep us alive, keep us rooted in one world over against all others.

I left Montana to go to school in the cornfields of southern Ohio. (Doig's college departure, incidentally, was for Northwestern University, five miles north of where I currently reside.) Two or three years into my studies, I found myself feeling profoundly unrooted--philosophically, spiritually, relationally. I played in the college jazz band. We were on tour in Chicago or maybe somewhere in PA, and in the midst of my feelings of homelessness, storylessness, I penned a preemptive eulogy for my past, my family, my father, Montana. I was mourning the stories that were not being told, the ones that rooted me to the land, to the elk and the mule deer in high mountain parks, to the icy dirt roads that stretched between my family home and civilization.

This House of Sky reads like a eulogy. The story remembers not only Doig's life, but also the life and death of his father and his grandmother. In another way, the story recounts the slow decline of a way of life now long since passed on: the Montana sheep ranch and the range town culture that lived and died with it. White Sulphur Springs, a center point for Doig's early itinerant life, has shrunk dramatically in the years between his childhood and mine. Valier, where Doig went to high school, is smaller now than it was even ten years ago. The story plays out like a Rocky Mountain rendition of Wendell Berry's account of Kentucky.

My dad read through this copy of This House of Sky before he passed it on to me. He marked up the book rather little, far less than the way nearly ten years of academia have trained me to. But he did highlight a few paragraphs:
All of his [Doig's father's] way of life that I had sought escape from--the grindstone routine of ranching, the existence at the mercy of mauling weather, the endless starting-over from one calamity or another--was passing with him, and while I still wanted my distance from such a gauntlet, I found that I did not want my knowing of it to go from me. The perseverance to have lasted nearly seventy years amid such cold prospects was what heritage Dad had for me; I had begun to see that it counted for much.
Through all this ran the zipperlike whisper of history as well. Dad's time span, and even the late portion of it when I was growing up at his side, quickly was being peeled away by change. To my constant surprise, in our years in the north and the time I was away at college White Sulphur had swapped itself from being a livestock town to a logging town. Each time I drove in now across the long deck of the valley, the blue plume of smoke from the sawmill's scrap burners at the edge of town startled me, made me wonder for an instant whose house had caught fire. Out from town, along the forks of the Smith River and beneath the flanks of the Castles and the Big Belts, the ranches were being reached by the continental metamorphosis from agriculture to agri-business. No longer were there the summer's haying crews Dad had foremanned so many times, only a few men on galloping machines. Nor were there any longer the dozens of sheepherders, nor the roving shearing crews, because there no longer were sheep; we are a people swathed in synthetics now.
I grew up one valley away from these stories, just the other side of the Bridger Mountains, fifty years removed. Doig tells the kind of stories that root this world--Montana then, Montana now--firmly in existence. It is the kind of book to read on foot, to walk through, one in which you feel the scuff of the ground beneath your feet. It's the kind of book to pack in with your life strapped to your back, whether you hike your way across the country or take the bus. It is a trip worth taking.

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