Ivan Doig’s memoir about his childhood and adolescence in rural Montana, This House of Sky, is an interestingly angular book, all joints and rough skin and knobby knees. This comes from the two driving forces of the book smashing together: voice and place, place and voice, tangling and rushing as if there were nothing different about the two and yet everything to separate them. In the end, it’s Doig’s contention (which he never quite makes explicit) that one shapes the other and the other shapes one, in ways we may never quite understand. It is a kind of terroir deeper than any vine can grow.
The question of voice in this book is hard to pin down, for a memoir, because Doig is trying to create three voices. One is his own, of course — a distinctive, insistent, poetic voice. One is his father’s, which has a Scottish burr and a rhythm tied to the seasons and necessities of sheep-farming. And one is his maternal grandmother’s, a voice roughened by hardship and sharpened by work, but softened at last into love for her intransigent son-in-law and her grandson. So within a page or two, you have Ivan’s father jacketing an orphaned lamb: Mother him like hell now, don’t ye? See what a helluva dandy lamb I got for ye, old sister? Who says I couldn’t jacket day onto night if I wanted to, now-I-ask-ye? And then Grandma: This here was your mother’s hope chest. The kids’ dad made it back at Moss Agate, when she first started going with Charlie. With your dad, I mean. He worked on this at nights for the longest time. See, he didn’t have anything to make it from but some pieces of flooring, but he wanted her to have a hope chest of some kind. he did a good job with it. He could when he wanted to. It’s sat here all these years. I want it to be yours now.
And then, between the constant echoes of those strong, harsh, loving voices, Doig himself: My mood there was to see everything as the edges of tomorrows, as if time were waiting in coiled shimmers behind the outline of whatever my watching picked out. The gasoline tank for the ranch machinery, with its round red face of metal which rang a deep blung when I hit a ball against it; that would be the vast green left field fence of Fenway Park if I grew up to be a baseball player. The meadows of wild hay splotched richly along Camas Creek, and the climbing slopes of grass: if I became a ranchman as Dad was, there would be such land mile upon mile.
Doig talks about the endless hard work of the ranch, the stinginess of the land, his father’s talent at the work and especially at managing the men; his grandmother’s discomfort if she ever sat idle even for a moment. He talks about the hardship, the dark side of the stubbornness that creates success in such a place, the sandpapery pig-headedness that ruins relationships and sends marriages shattering. He talks about the urges that sent him to school, reading everything he touched, and finally to college, out of ranch work and into a life of journalism and eventually published books. But all the time, the place and the voices — his father’s and grandmother’s most of all, but other voices too — that shaped him all his life.
This book about Montana was fascinating to read just after I read Fools Crow, James Welch’s book about the Pikuni (Blackfeet), a tribe living in the same territory just a hundred years or so before Ivan and his father were there. Doig and his family had a Blackfeet Indian reservation as northern neighbors, where they sometimes took lambs to graze for the summer on rented land. They saw the Blackfeet as troublemaking alcoholics who were unwilling to work — they themselves being acutely aware of the endless work it took to survive on that land — and they despised the Indians as a result. Doig as narrator is slightly sheepish about this racist and ignorant assessment, but represents their harsh judgments as they were. For me, having just read the beginning of the decline of the Blackfeet, it was a sobering moment of the book.
It took me a little while to begin to enjoy Doig’s writing, with its jerky pace, its rapid switching between voices, and its deep rootedness in western territory and experience. Once I began to settle into what he’s doing, however, I enjoyed his storytelling more and more until the end of the book. This is a book about relationships — relation to place, and to family — and so is universal as well as singular.