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Senior Correspondent
"This House of Sky," by Ivan Doig (Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1978)

When this book was recommended to me, I wasn’t sure I would appreciate a memoir of Montana wilderness and rugged ranch life, but the sheer literary quality of Doig’s story and its universal themes of family, loss, belonging, and survival in harsh environs made it a compelling read from start to finish.

By most accounts Ivan Doig could be said to have had an unusual childhood, one that some might envy and one that would make others shudder. His mother, afflicted with severe asthma, died on his sixth birthday. Struggling to keep his son with him, his dad herded sheep, cared for cattle, drove farm equipment, broke horses, moved often as jobs dictated, and managed to keep his son enrolled in school. All against the challenging weather and natural beauty of Montana.

At times his dad’s work was far from school and young Ivan was “boarded out” to a family in town, sometimes sharing a bed with another boy in the family.

During the years of ages six, seven and eight, Ivan made regular Saturday night rounds of the bars in White Sulphur Springs with his dad. The book describes each of half a dozen distinctive watering holes and their bartenders and patrons. Charlie Doig had decided the best way to raise a young boy was to treat him as an adult, someone already grown.

Eventually Charlie remarried and Ivan, wistfully hoping for some mothering, made his home with his dad and stepmother.” Ruth,” as she is called in the book, had been the ranch cook. Not long after the impulsive marriage, she begins relentless verbal warfare with Ivan’s dad. Ivan, perceptive and intelligent, takes all this in. Related in the first person: “I watched this slow bleed of a marriage…”

Against all odds, Charlie and Ruth decide to run a café in town, and to everyone’s surprise, it’s a success. But ranch life beckoned again and the two quit the café, invested in a thousand head of sheep, and settled into surviving fierce winters of snow and ice in the town of Battle Creek. Ivan again boards with a family and attends school. Then Ruth decides she’s had it, and leaves. After a somber period, enter Grandma Bessie Ringer, Ivan’s mother’s mother. In the back of Charlie Doig’s mind is the thought that he may not live much longer, and someone will need to care for Ivan.

Bessie holds an old grudge against Charlie, dating back to his courtship of her daughter, Ivan’s mother. A flashy cowboy in Bessie’s eyes, he courted her daughter starting when the girl was 15. They didn’t marry for six more years, but Bessie is still a bit suspicious of Charlie.

Yet she enters wholeheartedly into the tough ranch life, proving herself amazingly tireless, and able to do almost anything a ranch hand can. Author Doig’s prose captures his characters perfectly. When something goes amiss in the household, Grandma Bessie doesn’t say anything “but the straight line of her mouth said she was working on it.” Father, son, and grandmother eventually form a loving family unit.

This beautifully written story is author Ivan’s detailed reminiscence of attaining adulthood, deciding what vocation to follow, and sadly, losing the father who labored so hard to raise him. It was nominated for the National Book Award in 1978 and reissued in hard cover in 1992, the “knighthood” of bookdom, according to the author.

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