Dancing at the Rascal Fair, Ivan Doig 1987
This is a big novel in the tradition of The Thorn Birds and Legends of the Fall, two other books that trace a family over several generations and are as much about a place and a time as about the characters. In this case, Doig, considered by many to be the pre-eminent writer of literature of the American West, has given us a gripping story of late 19th C and early 20th C Montana from the days of the first homesteaders to the post-WWI drought and terrible winter of 1919. We live that story through two young Scots, Rob Barclay and Angus McCaskill who leave their home as 18 year olds, shipping in steerage to New York and from there via railroad, wagon, and walking to Gros Ventre in the Montana Territory where they find Rob’s Uncle Lucas. With his help they find homesteads at the foot of the mountains and begin their sheep herding lives. Marriages, children, and life ensues, all told with a quick-paced plot and energetic style. We get to know the other homesteaders of the North and South Fork, but the actual main character in the book is Montana itself, its beauty and its harsh and unforgiving climate. Near the end of the book, the tale of how Rob, Angus, and his son Varick travel to and from a railhead town to buy hay for their starving sheep in a brutal winter blizzard is as powerful a piece of writing as I’ve read recently. This is a good book to settle into as the days get short and the temperature plunges, especially since we now have the comforts of central heating and leg of lamb available at the local store.