Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Ivan Doig, This House of Sky

Montana Week continues here at BITS with another memoir, by novelist Ivan Doig. First published in 1979, his story is a rhapsody of affection for the land where he grew up, the small towns, homesteads and ranches in the Smith River Valley, along the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains.

Born in 1939, Doig begins his tale with the emigration of his forebears from Scotland to Montana. At the end, in the 1970s, he has emerged as a writer with a graduate degree, living in Seattle, with rich and deeply felt memories of the people and the land he has known – the house of sky.

An only child, his mother dying when he is six years old, Doig is raised by his father, Charlie, who works various jobs, sheepherding, haying, moving from place to place. For a while he leases a small ranch of his own, his son in tow.

Charlie is a hard-working man, with a big heart and tender love for his son. Concerned by a turn of bad health, he is reconciled to his mother-in-law, who had never approved of her daughter's marriage to him. The three of them become a family that remains together until Charlie's death at age 70.

The book captures and preserves in detail a way of life that has almost vanished from America. Doig tells of growing up in wide open spaces among livestock and wildlife, learning from his father the skills of making a living off the land and surviving against the odds.

White Sulphur Springs today, photo by R Scheer © 2011
In his boyhood during the 1940s, the nearest town was White Sulphur Springs, Montana, where he would go with his widowed father, spending a few hours with him in one of the town's many saloons. There Charlie would find old friends and catch up on the local news. Doig's chapter describing the specific ambiance and clientele of each of the bars in town is a memorable record of mid-century social history.

He attends small town schools, spending the winters in rented rooms, seeing his father and grandmother only on weekends. Because much of his time is spent with adults or alone, he grows up more quickly than his peers and learns to love solitude.

At 300+ pages, this is not a long book, but it's no page-turner. You find yourself reading it slowly, relishing the rich prose style that captures the poetry in this landscape of mountains, valleys, and plains. No less engaging are the people, with their personal quirks, habits, ways of talking, and often eccentric behavior.

Actually, the book reads much like a novel, full of stories, colorful characters, humor, pathos, suspense, and adventures. The vividness of Doig's writing reflects his training as a journalist. It’s a great book for anyone with an interest in the West, nature writing, books about growing up, family sagas, ranching and rural life. 

This House of Sky is available at amazon and AbeBooks. For a sample of his excellent fiction, I'd recommend his historical novel Prairie Nocturne, about an African-American operatic singer, the son of a cook at Fort Belknap and a Buffalo Soldier.

Coming up: Ralph Beer, In These Hills


  1. This book sounds great and I've just ordered a used copy from amazon for $2.96. I enjoyed one of Doig's novels a few years ago.

  2. Sounds like this one too would be great research material.

  3. Sounds like a good read. will check it out.

  4. I've seen this before - it looks really interesting. I believe it's available on Kindle too.

  5. Not you got me thinking. I have read something by him, just can not remember what. Could be my age again--looks like I will spend some time searching on line this evening. Hey thanks for giving me something to do other than TV.

  6. I enjoyed this book--it must have been 10 years or so when I read it. Great sheepherding stories.

  7. I have heard of Doig before. Now I'm making note. Thanks, Ron.

  8. I've read a few of Ivan Doig's books and enjoyed them. He grew up fairly close to where I live now.

    If you would like to read my book A Story of the West to review, I'd be more than happy to send you a copy.

  9. I have read several of his novels to great delight.

  10. I loved this book - thanks for the reminder.

  11. This House of Sky is one of the finest books ever written about Montana. I had the privilege of meeting Mr. Doig once, and I still cherish the memory.

  12. Doig's appeal has always struck me as an adult version of that of my favorite YA writer, Ester Wier, she of that Montana shepherd novel THE LONER.

  13. Thanks, everybody, for dropping by...

    Walker, you will enjoy it.

    Charles, an interesting detail about this area is that it has a connection with the Ringling Bros. circus. There's even a town Ringling just down the road from White Sulphur Springs.

    Travis, Doig has a real gift as a writer.

    Elisabeth, I think of it as a classic of Montana lit.

    OGR, searching for books beats TV 9 times out of 10.

    Sage, yeah, the book describes shepherding in the high meadows during the summers in the 1940s.

    David, he's a writer's writer, able to reach a more popular audience too.

    Susan, I'm covering nonfiction in this current go-round; when I get to fiction, I'll keep your novel in mind.

    Patti, his writing style and his characters are a pleasure; you get some Montana history, too.

    Laurie, glad to know so many readers here have already found it.

    Richard, glad to know it was good meeting him; not all writers are the cherishing kind, no matter how well they write...

    Todd, THE LONER sounds like something to look for.