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Book Review: The Bartender’s Tale

Author: Ivan Doig
Publisher: Riverhead, August 2012
Genre: Literature
Format: Audiobook, Narrated by David Aaron Baker

Ivan Doig is an extraordinary storyteller. He specializes in telling stories about the old days in Montana. In The Bartender’s Tale, the “old days” are the 1960s with references to earlier times. The main characters are Rusty, an inquisitive twelve-year-old who narrates the story, and his dad, Tom Harry.

Tom Harry owns the Medicine Lodge, the best saloon in this small town in northern Montana. Tom is a bartender with standards. He won’t let anyone drink to excess and he won’t allow fighting. He remembers everyone’s name and favorite drink as well as the tales they tell him in confidence. He’s skilled at managing people and a good business man as well.

Rusty and his dad are on their own. Rusty’s mom left when Rusty was a few months old. They’re doing okay. Rusty does chores in the bar but he’s not allowed to be in the bar during business hours. Rusty spends a lot of time in the bar’s back room where he can hear what’s going on through a vent that connects the two rooms. The back room is also notable because it’s loaded with items Tom has taken in as credit for drinks over the years. Some of it is bizarre and some is valuable.

The story revolves around the events of the summer Rusty turned twelve. He makes a new friend, Zoe, who has just moved to town with her parents who own the diner. They have a lot in common and a lot of free time. Also new in town is Del, a young man who works for the Library of Congress gathering up “oral histories.”  He asks for Tom’s help in collecting the histories, and Tom reluctantly agrees.

Two other people enter Tom and Rusty’s life that summer: Proxy, an old flame of Tom’s, and her daughter, Francine. Proxy tells Tom Francine is really his daughter and asks Tom to give her a job in the bar and teach her the business. Although Tom is skeptical, he agrees. Proxy goes back to Reno and Francine settles in to learn the job.

That summer brings about some very interesting event and changes. Because we see them through Rusty’s eyes, we see them innocently and what only twelve-year-olds believe is true. This is the storyteller’s genius. Doig allows the listener (reader) to imagine what else is going on in addition to what Rusty is telling us. We become so engaged in the story that we are taken back to that small town in Montana in 1960.

I truly loved this story. I smiled, laughed, nodded, looked up northern Montana on the map and read about some of the events in the area. In other words, I was totally engaged in this story. I had tears in my eyes when the book ended. I didn’t want to leave it. That is my highest form of recommendation to you.

I listened to the audio version, which in my opinion is the best way to experience this wonderful storyteller. The narrator was David Aaron Baker who did a superb job keeping all the characters straight and the accents and dialogue flowing.

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