Author: Ivan Doig
Publisher: Scribner/Simon & Schuster, 1987
Format: Audiobook Narrated by Robert Ian McKenzie (20 Hours)
I absolutely love this writer and the Western characters he creates. I swear he is telling us about real people and – I know them! I’ve read a number of his books now so I know he’s that good. What took me over the top with Dancing At the Rascal Fair was Robert Ian McKenzie, the audiobook’s narrator. He truly became the body and soul of Angus McCaskill.
Angus McCaskill was only 19 when he and his friend Rob Barclay left Scotland for the United States in the 1880s. Rob had an uncle who had settled in Montana and sent money home every Christmas, implying a rich life. The two young men knew hard work, but they dreamed of the free land offered near Rob’s uncle. Off they went.
It was a great adventure crossing the ocean, most of the continent and then trying to pinpoint Uncle Lucas in that vast territory of Montana. Eventually they do find the uncle and he stakes them both to a homestead ranch raising sheep. The two begin building their barns and homes and learn what it takes to raise lambs in a country of volatile weather.
Angus and Rob also met the neighbors who had arrived before them. One of the neighbors heard that Angus had helped out in a school back in Scotland, so he was tagged to be a member of the newly created School Board. The growing community needed educational guidance, not to mention a school building and a teacher. Angus supplements his homesteading income for years by being the community’s schoolmaster.
An additional life-changing event happens when Angus met Anna, the neighboring county’s schoolteacher. It was instant love for Angus and he carefully began to court her. Unfortunately for Angus, Anna chose to marry another man. Angus was devastated, but he continued to love Anna his entire life, even though he married someone else. Angus’ love for Anna will build wedges between Angus and those he loves most.
Dancing At the Rascal Fair is a wide sweeping look at life in the early Western communities. It spans, approximately, the years from 1889 to 1919. It’s inevitable that events outside Montana will impact them. The great influenza, World War I, the rush of even more homesteaders and the creation of the national Forest Service was felt by all in this novel.
Doig’s use of dialogue, regional and time period phrases made this novel a word-rich experience. His descriptions of the landscape also took me there. Best of all, he allowed Angus McCaskill to be the narrator so I, the reader, knew what Angus really thought of the people he met as well as how he judged his own conduct.
I particularly enjoyed being inside the one-room schoolhouse, looking out at the land from the top of a mountain, and nearly freezing to death in a blinding snow storm. (All this from the safety of my comfortable California home! Isn’t reading wonderful?) I can’t recommend this book to enough people. It’s so good. If you don’t read any other of Ivan Doig’s books, read this one. (Actually, listen to it. Robert Ian McKenzie can roll his r’s like the best Scotsman.)
Ivan Doig just passed away this past Spring. He left an incredible body of work that will still be read decades from now as people attempt to understand the immigrants who homesteaded America. Just before his death he completed his final novel, Last Bus to Wisdom. You can find an excellent review of that book and a tribute to Mr. Doig here at The New York Times.