"To say the truth, it was not how I expected -- stepping off toward America past a drowned horse," complains young immigrant Angus McCaskill to his fellow Scotsman Rob Barclay as they set their course toward their new lives in Montana in 1889. After the harrowing ocean voyage, life gets some better and some worse for the young men in Ivan Doig's beautiful novel, Dancing at the Rascal Fair.
To say the truth . . . I put off reading this book for a very long time and if it were not for the gentle prods of my good friend and fellow reader Joella Ewing, I probably would still have the book gathering dust on my coffee table. I had tried some Doig in the past; found the books slow-paced.
For instance, I had finally pressed myself to read English Creek (the first of Doig's McCaskill trilogy, although second in time sequence). That book is told through a first-person teenage narrator, one of my least-favorite literary forms.
All of the books in the trilogy reflect some of Doig's own experience growing up on a ranch in Montana and his work for the U.S. Forestry Service. His novels are also rich in western history. Still, I could not embrace them with the same enthusiasm as, say, James Galvin or Kent Haruf or Cormac McCarthy.
Finally I pushed through my own resistance, to a lovely reward. Dancing at the Rascal Fair is the literary western at its best; rich with the flavor of the immigrant and the western experience. McCaskill and Barclay settle near Gros Ventre, "a growing stripling of a town, all elbows and shanks," the men easily as rough and immature. From there the book follows the vagaries of their lives, loves and loss.
While it was Doig's memoir The House of Sky that got him nominated for a National Book Award, I think Rascal Fair is the best of his work, and it has finally reached its deserved place on my "Favorites" list on my website.
If you want to read the trilogy, follow Joella (and now my) advice, and start with Dancing at the Rascal Fair, then English Creek, then Ride With Me, Mariah Montana. If you become a Doig convert, he has 8 other novels at the ready.