June 27, 2004

Dancing at the Rascal Fair, by Ivan Doig

There are some folks who write clean and crisp prose with a snap to it like sheets fresh from the sunshine. And there are some who write melodies that flow from the page into the mind, dancing rhyme and rhythm into a story that lasts and lasts. But the really good writers can do both. Ivan Doig is one of those.

Dancing at the Rascal Fair is the story of two friends, Rob Barclay and Angus McCaskill, who emigrate from Scotland in 1889 to become sheep ranchers in the high country of Montana. They are young bucks in a new land believing that a canny mind and hard work will make them successful. They have left behind the poverty and harshness of life in Scotland for the promise and harshness of life homesteading. And in it they find joy. But it takes a hardpan spirit to survive undamaged the brutality of the winters near the mountains and the hard life of a sheep rancher and Angus McCaskill is of softer soil than that. A rift develops between the two friends, widened by Angus' love of a woman he can't have and Rob's inability to accept that his friend is not able to bounce with the same gusto he does. The story of the rift between these two friends who are closer than brothers is what forms the core of the book. The story of Montana and the forests and mountains in the west is the background that it is played against.

This was actually my third time thru the book. I bought it soon after it came out in 1987 on a whim in the bookstore and read it thru once. A few years back I picked it off the bookshelf to see if it was as excellent as I remembered and it was. And lately NPR has featured it on "Chapter a Day" which brought back to me the musical quality of the language that Doig uses to tell his story. It reads aloud incredibly well. At first I thought it was the phrasing that he uses that was so wonderful, almost like a Scots burr rolling off the r's and broadening the vowels with snippets of Bobbie Burns woven in to pick out the colors. But this time thru what I really noticed is that the story plays out almost as if there is a fiddle playing highland music in the background, faintly picking up tempo or going down to the deep notes as the story unfolds. I have rarely read a writer with Doig's facile touch with language. It was a true pleasure.

Posted by Deb English at June 27, 2004 08:16 PM