Visiting Two Medicine Country

Posted Monday, January 7, 2013 - 16:19
Cover of The Bartender’s Tale by Ivan Doig

In 1978, when I first read Ivan Doig’s This House of Sky, I was a librarian at Timberland Regional Library in Washington State. Doig’s memoir of growing up in the Montana high country as the third member, along with his father and grandmother, of an unconventional but loving family struck me as a very special book. The literature of the West has always thrived on stories that evoke the largely unspoken ties that bind rugged individualists. But Doig—combining a marvelous ability to evoke Montana’s harsh landscape with a novelist’s sensitivity to the nuances of character—brought a new level of poignancy to this familiar theme.

I was writing freelance book reviews at the time I read Doig’s book and had managed to have a few published in local papers. Naturally, I took a shot at reviewing This House of Sky and submitted my work to the San Francisco Review of Books, which, shockingly, agreed to publish it. That was my first placement in what I thought of as an important book journal. And while I may have been wrong about that (the SFRB folded in 1997), I’ve always been thankful that Doig’s book landed in my hands when it did.

When I came to Booklist in 1980, I made sure that Doig’s books continued to land in my hands, and I’m happy to say I’ve reviewed all 13 of them (11 novels and two memoirs) over the past three decades. Even though it was a memoir that launched his career, the majority of Doig’s work has been fiction, most notably the series of novels set in the fictional Two Medicine Country of Montana, which he has claimed as his literary turf as unequivocally as Faulkner annexed Yoknapatawpha County. I have occasionally quibbled with Doig’s distinctive narrative voice, which sometimes turns overly florid and calls too much attention to itself, but more often, as in two of my favorites, English Creek (1984) and The Whistling Season (2006), voice and story are in perfect harmony.

Throughout his long career, Doig has been at his best when chronicling the passing of a season in the lives of a Montana family during the early 20th century. Those seasons typically mix daily life with grander events (the passing of Halley’s Comet or the building of Fort Peck Dam), but whether the scale is large or small, Doig always digs the details of his historical moments from the Montana dirt in which they thrived.

That is especially true of Doig’s latest book, The Bartender’s Tale (2012), which stars Tom Harry, owner and chief barkeep of a saloon in Gros Ventre, Montana, in the heart of Two Medicine Country. The tale jumps between 1960 and the Depression, when Tom ran another bar at the Fort Peck Dam construction site. Narrated by Tom’s precocious 12-year-old son, Rusty, the novel combines a moving coming-of-age story with great dollops of Montana history, and—best of all—a you-are-there look at daily life in a Western saloon (“Without a basic good glass of beer, properly drawn and presented, a saloon was merely a booze trough”).

Now that’s a piece of detail I can really appreciate.

BILL OTT is editor and publisher of Booklist.

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