Monday, April 20, 2015

The Man from Big Sky Country - Remembering Ivan Doig

It was Ivan Doig who first introduced me to the true wonders of Montana.  I crossed the breadth of that Big Sky Country during the summer of 1970 when a good friend and I were returning home to Milwaukee after a trek across Canada from Manitoba to British Columbia.  I recall being impressed with the long, lonesome highways and the far distant horizons in almost any direction I cared to look.  Not only a land of endless sky, but a vast emptiness bearing little evidence that man ever passed this way.

It was not until three decades later, as I prepared for my first return to the Treasure State, that I truly came to appreciate these many wonders, having read Ivan Doig’s This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind, first published in 1979.  Wright Morris, in his review of the book in the New York Times, described how Doig “reinforces our diminishing conviction that there is something special in American earth, in American experience and in the harrowing terms of American survival.”  For it is in these western landscapes that one finds something that is uniquely American.  Hard as I have tried, even now I cannot put my finger squarely on what this singular quality might be.  If you visit the west, more specifically Montana, you will feel it, too.  This is what made Doig a special writer.  The bottom line is his pure love of language, and the creation of something that did not exist before.  He broke down the old stereotypes of the American West and those who choose to live there.  His sense of place became as broad and distant as the horizons of his native Big Sky Country, not only the distance to the horizons, but the “walls of high country” and the “windswept floor where shadows ascent deep valleys” that become a part of Doig’s heart and soul. 

Montana life, its joys and its griefs, came alive in his pen.

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.

Ivan Doig has left us far too soon.  The silence of his pen will be measured by the echo of his words as they vanish into that illimitable emptiness of the American West.

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