Friday, October 14, 2011

Prairie Nocturne

I used to think Ivan Doig was one of my favorite authors, based on his "Dancing at the Rascal Fair", which I loved,  and "English Creek" which I also liked a lot.  "Ride With Me,  Mariah Montana" did not do much for me, but I figured two out of three wasn't bad and not everybody can hit the bullseye every time. But I have just read his novel  "Prairie Nocturne" and I am re-evaluating my views of Ivan Doig.  I  did not like this book at all.

It is a rambling story, alternating between the 1890's and the mid-1920's.  It is set partly in the Two Medicine country of Montana which is the background for his earlier novels, and partly in Harlem with episodes in Scotland and other places.   It involves cattle barons, a WWI hero, the Ku Klux Klan,  an illicit love affair, a bi-racial love affair, a dust storm, an earthquake, rustlers, black cavalrymen, and on and on.  Reading back over that list, it sounds pretty exciting, but I just found it tiresome and skimmed through quite a bit of the book.  Just when you think the story is winding up, the author manages  to throw in another crisis and keep it going.  None of it rang true in my mind.

Of course, this is all very subjective and you may love this book.  It is called "Prairie Nocturne" by Ivan Doig.  Published by Scribner.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Where Rivers Change Direction

I love horses.  That is, I love the idea of horses.  I would never get anywhere near an actual horse.  I am terrified of them.

To me, they are the most beautiful of all the creatures.  The lovely, graceful sweep of neck and back, the muscular hindquarters, the delicate legs.   What could be more thrilling than a herd of wild horses thundering over the desert, manes flying, nostrils flaring?  You feel the raw energy generated by these free spirits could move mountains.  No wonder they call it horsepower!

In the big derbies, I want every one to win!  I love the post parade, watching the lathered beauties dancing by,  each a bottled-up unit of power and speed, ready to explode at the signal.  I love the gentle, mild-mannered outrider's horses, sensible no-nonsense mentors to these high-spirited youngsters.  I love the massive Percherons and Belgians, with their feathered feet,  the elegant trotters and steeple-chasers and the patient workhorses, uncomplaining and steady.  I am an admirer of all horseflesh.

I suppose this rubbed off on me from my mother, who adored horses.  She rode them as a girl and painted and sketched lovely images of them later in life.  Since my family were ranchers, horses were an important part of their lives and livelihood, as much a part of daily life as the automobile is to us today. 

The only horse I ever had anything to do with was a sway-backed pinto pony we called Ole Paint.  As little kids, we rode him bareback, sometimes two or three at a time.   My father used him to haul the stone-boat with which he cleared land, and they harrowed the garden together in spring.  We sometimes hitched him to an old buggy  for jaunts around the neighborhood.  When approached with a harness or bridle, he emitted huge  audible sighs, but he had the patience of Job and he was gentle and understanding.  There is a family story of a small cousin who wandered off and was discovered standing beneath him, patting his tummy.  As far from the fiery mustangs of the plains as Mrs. Claus from Lady Gaga.

Believe it or not, this is leading, in a way, to the review of a book I recently read.  It is not really about horses, although they figure prominently in the narrative,  and the author's father owned a hundred of them as the proprietor of a Wyoming dude ranch.

The book is a collection of essays and stories of the writer's rugged boyhood growing up in the 1960's on the State's oldest dude ranch, just outside the east entrance to Yellowstone Park, in the Shoshone National Forest. He went to work for his father at the age of 11, with a salary of $30.00 a month, room and board.  Some of the events he describes would surely have today's Child Protective Services in a dither, but he seems to have relished the life, at least as a boy.  His writing is sometimes quite lyrical, even poetic,  and very intense. I think of his style as  masculine.  As the essays progress and he grows into manhood,  they take on a very dark tone and the last one was so depressing that I would recommend skipping it entirely.

I liked this book on many levels, but I don't think everyone would.  The descriptions and flavor of the Wyoming wilderness are powerful and the author is passionate in his love for the land where he grew up.  (And for the horses he shared it with.)  But a quaint memoir of boyhood on the old homestead, it is not.  I think he wrestles with many demons.  But if you like this rugged kind of man-book and admire good writing,  I think it is worth your time.

Where Rivers Change Direction         Mark Spragg      Riverhead Books