Anyone who has attempted to spin their own web of fiction has to gaze in awe and admiration at someone who does it as well as Ivan Doig has in Dancing at the Rascal Fair. After the first fifty pages or so, I wrote in my notebook, “Doig’s prose is so poetic that it sits alongside Robert Burns’ poetry on the page as pleasing to the eye as two mountains in our own Zion Canyon.” Yet, after a hundred and fifty pages, I found myself greeting a new chapter much like Alexander McCaskill greeted another day of building the lighthouse on Bell Rock, “… the job was there … it was to be done …”
A dish of home-crafted ice cream, filled with sweet nuts and delectable chocolate chunks can be a delight to your appetite. The second dish can be almost as good. By the time you get to the fifth, or maybe eighth dish, you might be thinking that you need to do something else instead of eating ice cream. I think that’s why Doig’s prose started to drag on me after a while. It was just too rich and wonderful to continue for four hundred pages. I found myself asking, “Did people ever live who talked like that all the time?”
And it became somewhat predictable, too. Near the end, Rob – embittered by his feud with Angus – rides off on Angus’ beloved old horse Scorpion and gets them both drowned. The next three or four pages were inevitable as soon as Rob, Angus, and Scorpion were together in the same snow storm near an ice covered pond.
The job of painting such a large and expressive canvas must have worked on Doig’s attention span too. At the beginning of the book, magnificent prose was layered on each page. On page 21, I found, “This was the lyric sea, absently humming in the sameness of the gray and green play of its waves, in its patter of water always wrinkling, moving, yet other water instantly filling its place.” Near the end, on page 359, I found, “… occasional patches of the foothills showed through.” What? Just “foothills”? What about, “earthen harbingers of the heights beyond under the gray and threatening scowl of the sky”? Had Doig managed to keep to the pace set in the first part of the book, it might have stretched to eight hundred pages.
I also found some parts of the book to be less than believable. For example, Lucas sends a hundred dollars back to his relatives in Scotland every Christmas. Remember, this is the same Lucas who …
- Got involved in a silver mine partnership that Doig describes as unprofitable to a long string of miners
- Lost both hands in a mining accident and barely survives after being treated for months owing to to the charity of a doctor in an Army hospital
- Drifts to a tiny outpost on the raw frontier, presumably because no other options are open, and serves liquor to infrequent and generally impoverished cowhands
I wondered how much the hundred dollars Doig put into his book when it was published was worth in 1889. The web site measuringworth.com calculates it as:
“In 1996, the relative value of $100.00 from 1890 ranges from $1,740.00 to $53,200.00.”
The large difference depends on whether you’re measuring inflation in wages, commodities, real estate or something else. Pick a number in the middle. Could someone like Lucas afford to send $25,000 to Scotland every year for a decade while this was happening? Not even the killing blizzard winter of 1886 stopped him. In my own attempts at fiction, questions like this have haunted my writing.
I found myself skipping through paragraphs that were just more candied ice-cream where I knew what would happen. Sometimes the motives of the characters rang hollow. Would Rob really have turned on his life-long friend and partner Angus in an unwise decision to interfere on behalf of a sister he barely knew based fragments of information he wasn’t sure of? Would Anna have allowed herself to be partially undressed and pawed by a lover she knew she was going to reject just before her wedding to someone else? The justification was thin, but the descriptive embellishment was thick.
The best part of the book was how it made the Montana frontier alive again. Some of the great events in the history of our nation and the world were woven into the fabric of the story and made part of the lives of the characters: The Homestead Act; World War One and the Spanish Influenza; the impact of the coming of the railroad. And, in spite of questions I held in reserve, I have to admit that the human drama of the story did capture me. Another reason for skipping through paragraphs was to find out what would happen. Would Angus and Anna get together again? Would Varick reunite with his father?
It was all too much like a Montana frontier soap opera in print for me. But then, the real soap operas of TV were worshipped by millions for decades.