Sunday, September 25, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Dancing at the Rascal Fair by Ivan Doig

Here’s a book to lose yourself in: Dancing at the Rascal Fair by Ivan Doig. Doig is another historical fiction legend whose books have loomed out there but that I had never tackled. Dancing at the Rascal Fair is the second novel in The Montana Trilogy and in a rather heretical move for me, I started in the middle of the trilogy. The novel is complete in itself so it doesn’t matter that it’s the second of three. Nevertheless, I now have to go back and read English Creek, because this is the kind of sweeping historical saga I love.

The story is narrated beautifully by Angus McCaskill, one of a pair of nineteen-year-old men emigrating from Scotland to find better lives. His partner, the enthusiastic leader of the adventure, is Rob Barclay. Rob has an uncle, Lucas Barclay, who left Scotland years before to settle in Montana. Every Christmas, Lucas sends $100.00 back to his kin, evidence of his success in the bountiful America.

Although terrified of water and reluctant to cross the Atlantic–a reasonable fear given what they go through in steerage–Angus is ready to follow the charismatic Rob to the end of the earth, believing that the free land awaiting them in Montana is worth the risk.

Once across the Atlantic, crossing the US is easy, but finding Lucas is harder than they thought. And when they finally locate him, in a tiny idea of a town called Gros Ventre, he’s not the same man they remember. Still, he takes them under his wing and helps them embrace the challenges of the new world.

In time, they stake their claims to plots of good Montana land and begin lives as sheep farmers. There are good times and bad. The life is hard, but working side-by-side, they scratch out a measure of success. Rob marries and settles in. For Angus, it’s more difficult. He falls in love with the school teacher in the next settlement, Anna Ramsey. Meanwhile, Rob sends to Scotland for his young sister, Adair. Rob is certain Angus and his sister will make a good pair.

Rob is used to getting his way. He wouldn’t have, this time, except that Anna rejects Angus’s proposal. On the rebound and tired of life alone, and because Adair is intelligent, quiet, and a reasonable enough choice, Angus marries her after all.

Life goes on.

The novel carries us from 1889 through the end of WWI, taking us along through major changes in the western US and the world. As historical fiction, it immerses the reader in time and place, but more than the epic history so wonderfully presented, it’s the people who make this such an engrossing read.

The families are buffeted by the hardships of homesteading in Montana and by the difficulties inherent in marriages and in friendships. Angus is as steady as they come, but his hard-headed obsession with a woman who doesn’t want him eventually costs him dearly. Rob, ever convinced that whatever he does is right, cannot come to grips with the fact that his closest friend no longer will follow wherever he leads. This is one of those stories that wraps you up in the lives of the characters and breaks your heart.

1 comment:

  1. I've never heard of these books but this sounds like the kind of historical saga I would love too. I hope you enjoy the other two in the trilogy!