In December, after months in my desk chair, I reseated myself in a saddle on a brown quarter horse. Jenny and I went back to a guest ranch in Southern Arizona and rode horses twice every day for a week. My phone didn’t work. My laptop was 2500 miles away. For hours on end, I looked at cacti, rocks, birds, clouds and horses’ tails. And my brain uncramped and stretched out to the horizons, not thinking about anything particular, unfettered by time and space.
When I wasn’t riding or eating or playing cards, I was reading. I’d packed my Kindle with ranch appropriate materials; two disappointing Elmore Leonard Westerns, the Assassination of Jesse James By Ron Hansen and English Creek by Ivan Doig.
I’d never read Doig before. I’d noticed his name on the shelves of Three Lives in the West Village but always dismissed him, thinking he was Russian (I think I confused him with Gogol or Gorky or some such). Amazon insisted that I might like English Creek. And, boy, did I.
English Creek is not about an English creek. Or a Russian one either. It takes place in the 1930s in a small town in Montana, the story of one summer in the life of a 14-year-old boy whose dad is in the forestry service and whose brother has just fallen in love with the wrong girl and left home to work on a big ranch. But this description, like the fly leaf blurb, does it scant justice.
The books is really about the fleeting nature of time, how a single summer can reshuffle the deck of one’s life, how people a century ago lived the same dramas we do, how a single mistake can rewrite the future. Sure, it’s also about the grueling work of a rancher, about the scary loneliness of sheep farmers high in the mountains, about the brutal indifference of nature, about rodeos, piles of sheep corpses, and forest fires. So, on one hand, it’s about a world and people that are living lives so unfamiliar, and on the other, like all great literature, it’s about the essential dramas all humans live through, regardless of time and place.
After English Creek, I read Dancing at the Rascal Fair, the next volume in a trilogy but which actually takes place two generations earlier, when the first settlers came from Scotland. It’s an even more grueling story of making something from nothing, a seemingly impossible task that the characters manage to muddle through, and features another central character distracted by an ill-advised romance. Covering decades, it’s much more epic than Creek but ultimately less satisfying.
It’s the language of English Creek that enticed me most. It’s not stylized to fit the time or genre like Leonard and it’s not baroque in describing the terrible beauty of nature. It’s human, timeless, and true. Doig isn’t perverse like say, Cormac McCarthy, but he’s not afraid to describe terrible things when they are a part of a raw and essential life. His people speak and behave like real people, individual, relatable. I had the deep sense of being in their lives, of being transported. As I sat astride my own steed, I’d mentally page back through what I’d read the night before, feeling rooted to the earth, to my horse, to the past, to America, to a wonderful author who, fortunately, left behind many more books for me to read.