Dancing at the Rascal Fair (Doig)

Dancing at the Rascal Fair 
Ivan Doig, 1987
Simon & Schuster
352 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780684831053

Doig wrote this novel after English Creek as part of his McCaskill trilogy—which also includes Ride with Me, Mariah Montana—but read Dancing at the Rascal Fair first).

From its opening on the quays of a Scottish port in 1889 to its close on a windswept Montana homestead three decades later, this novel is a passionate and authentic chronicle of the American experience.

When we meet Angus McCaskill and Rob Barclay—emigrants, "both of us nineteen and green as the cheese of the moon and trying our double-damnedest not to show it"—they are setting off for a new life in a new land, in America, in Montana, "those words with their ends open." We follow their fortunes in the Two Medicine country at the base of the Rocky Mountains: the building of homes and the raising of families, making a living and making a life.

Here is the tale of the uncertainties of friendship and love; here are sheep-shearing contests and raucous dances in one-room schoolhouses; here are brutal winters and unrelenting battles of the will; here is a love of delightful and heartbreaking intensity, and another love, born of heartbreak, of an equally moving and stoical devotion. (From the author's website.)

Author Bio 
Birth—June 27, 1939
Where—White Sulphur Springs, Montana, USA
Death—April 9, 2015
Where—Seattle, Washington
Education—B.A., M.A., Northwestern University; Ph.D., University of Washington

Ivan Doig was born in Montana to a family of home-steaders and ranch hands. After the death of his mother Berneta, on his sixth birthday, he was raised by his father Charles "Charlie" Doig and his grandmother Elizabeth "Bessie" Ringer. After several stints on ranches, they moved to Dupuyer, Pondera County, Montana in the north to herd sheep close to the Rocky Mountain front.

After his graduation from Valier high school, Doig attended Northwestern University, where he received a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in journalism. He later earned a Ph.D. in American history at the University of Washington, writing his dissertation about John J. McGilvra (1827-1903). He now lives with his wife Carol Doig, nee Muller, a university professor of English, in Seattle, Washington.

Before he became a novelist, Doig wrote for newspapers and magazines as a free-lancer and worked for the United States Forest Service. He has also published two memoirs—This House of Sky (1979) and Heart Earth (1993).

Much of his fiction (more than 10 novels) is set in the Montana country of his youth. His major theme is family life in the past, mixing personal memory and regional history. As the western landscape and people play an important role in his fiction, he has been hailed as the new dean of western literature, a worthy successor to Wallace Stegner.  (From Wikipedia.)

His own words:

• Taking apart a career in such summary sentences always seems to me like dissecting a frog—some of the life inevitably goes out of it—and so I think the more pertinent Ivan Doig for you, Reader, is the red-headed only child, son of ranch hand Charlie Doig and ranch cook Berneta Ringer Doig (who died of her lifelong asthma on my sixth birthday), who in his junior year of high school (Valier, Montana; my class of 1957 had 21 members) made up his mind to be a writer of some kind.

• No one is likely to confuse my writing style with that of Charlotte Bronte, but when that impassioned parson’s daughter lifted her pen from Jane Eyre and bequeathed us the most intriguing of plot summaries—"Reader, I married him"—she also was subliminally saying what any novelist ... must croon to those of you with your eyes on our pages: "Reader, my story is flirting with you; please love it back."

• One last word about the setting of my work, the American West. I don’t think of myself as a "Western" writer. To me, language—the substance on the page, that poetry under the prose—is the ultimate "region," the true home, for a writer. Specific geographies, but galaxies of imaginative expression —we’ve seen them both exist in William Faulkner’s postage stamp-size Yoknapatawpha County, and in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s nowhere village of Macondo, dreaming in its hundred years of solitude. If I have any creed that I wish you as readers, necessary accomplices in this flirtatious ceremony of writing and reading, will take with you from my pages, it’d be this belief of mine that writers of caliber can ground their work in specific land and lingo and yet be writing of that larger country: life. (From the author's website.)

Book Reviews
Against this masterfully evoked backdrop. Mr. Doig addresses his real subject: love between friends, between the sexes, between the generations....His is a prose as tight as a new thread and as special as handmade candy....Dancing at the Rascal Fair races with real vigor and wit and passion.
Lee K. Abbott - New York Times Book Review

Doig's prose is so muscular and sculpted, so simple and purposeful that I can think only of Edward Hoagland and Wallace Stegner as Doig's equals.
Henry Kaisor - Chicago Sun Times

Dazzling...I find myself filled With such high praise for this book that instead of relating paltry bits of it, I want to quote the whole glorious thing....Doig plunges right in and, while giving us a gorgeous story, simultaneously peels that tale back to expose, the nubbins of human despair—injustice, failure, and that incalculable restlessness exemplifled by the immigrant.
Pamela Guillard - San Francisco Chronicle

Magnificent....Dancing at the Rascal Fair further establishes its author in the front ranks of contemporary American writers.
Michael Dorris - Seattle Times

Montana's rugged Two Medicine country, memorably evoked in the author's nonfiction memoir This House of Sky and the novel English Creek, once again shapes personalities and destinies in his new work. In 1889, two young Scotsmen, Rob Barclay and Angus McCaskill (grandfather of the narrator of English Creek, arrive in Montana, where for 30 years they struggle to find personal happiness and wrest a living from this demanding land. After losing the woman he loves, Angus marries Rob's sister Adair; their difficult relationship creates conflict, and then a bitter breach, between the two men. But if the thorny individualism of Rob and Angus results in lives that are never easy, they are rich in incident and growth, beautifully described in Doig's strong, savory prose. America's frontier history comes vividly to life in this absorbing saga filled with memorable characters.
Publishers Weekly

The settlement of Montana between 1890 and 1919 is recounted through the quiet but compelling life of Angus McCaskill, a young Scotsman who travels with his friend Rob Barclay to Montana's Two Medicine Country to homestead. Doig writes fervently of the voyage from Scotland and the lean first years, as the two share the work and hardship of establishing claims and building up flocks of sheep. He tells of their separate marriages, the severing of their friendship, and the final resolution of their conflict through death. Doig successfully recaptures the violence of the Montana elements and the staunch heritage of the Scottish settlers which served so well in his earlier novel English Creek and faithfully represents the struggle for survival on the frontier as he continues the McCaskills' story. Highly recommended—Thomas L. Kilpatrick, Southern Illinois Univ. Lib., Carbondale
Library Journal

Discussion Questions
1. At the start of the book, Angus thinks back on his and Rob's decision to emigrate from Scotland and wonders what Rob's "deep reasons" were. What do you think? And how does Lucas serve as a symbol of the West's promise and perils?

2. The novel takes place over 30 years and spans several generations. How does Doig convincingly allow so much time to pass and yet focus on specific events, moments and exchanges between characters with precision and effect? What narrative methods does he use to create a sweeping saga that is also a nuanced portrait of people and place?

3. The numerous historical events woven into this fictional tale include the influenza epidemic, the establishment of America's national forests, and the First World War. Can fiction bring a milieu alive more vividly than "straight" history?

4. Ivan Doig has described the way his characters speak on the page as "a poetry of the vernacular" and has said that he strives to craft the "poetry under the prose." Find examples of how Doig creates dialogue to show how Angus and Rob become more Americanized over the years.

5. What does Angus's love of verse, and his habit of quoting it, say about his personality? What does he seem to seek by turning to poetry and song? What effect does Doig achieve by peppering the book with Scottish verse? What special significance lies in the lyrics of "Dancing at the Rascal Fair," which the author composed to serve as the book's title?

6. Doig believes that "writers of caliber can ground their work in specific land and lingo and yet be writing of that larger country: life." Yet setting is anything but a passive backdrop in Doig's fiction. Does the grandeur of Montana dwarf the lives of the characters or make them seem more expansive and dramatic? How does the unpredictable Montana climate parallel the stormy relationships depicted in the book?

7. Angus remarks that "the Atlantic was a child's teacup compared to the ocean that life could be." Discuss the water imagery throughout the book, from Rob and Angus's transatlantic voyage, to the droughts the homesteaders suffer, to Rob's eventual fate.

8. Throughout the book, Rob and Angus worry over the "perils that sheep invite on themselves." Can a parallel be drawn between the sheep, with all their promise and vulnerability, and the homesteaders who tend them?

9. Do you believe that Anna truly loved both Isaac and Angus, or was she simply sparing Angus's feelings when she told him she would know where to turn if her marriage went awry? Had Anna lived through the influenza epidemic, do you think it likely that she and Angus would have re-ignited their relationship?

10. Angus calls his marriage to Adair a "truce." Discuss the ways in which Doig explores the interplay of obligation, compromise, loyalty and affection in their marriage. For which of these two victims of unrequited love do you feel the most sympathy? Considering Adair's knowledge that she is not Angus's true love and her admission that she is ill-suited for homesteading life, why does she stay so long in Montana? In the end, do you find Angus and Adair's relationship practical and companionable or tragic and sad?

11. How does Doig develop Rob and Angus's lifelong friendship? Trace its arc over the decades. How realistically does Doig depict the eventual rift between them? What do you think caused the drastic change in Rob's personality toward the end of his life?

12. In the final chapter, Angus reflects: "Hard ever to know, whether time is truly letting us see from the pattern of ourselves into those next to us." What does this novel say, finally, about the mysteries of human relationships and the human heart?
(Questions courtesy of the author's website.)

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