Although I’ve read many of Ivan Doig’s novels which in turn has made him one of my favorite authors, nothing made me feel closer to the man himself than reading This House Of Sky. Yes, I know it’s a true story of his life, yet it was way past real. I felt as if I was right there beside him all the way. His beautiful descriptive language not only helped me see the landscape, but it made me feel a wide range of emotions from sadness to anger to elation to frustration to hope.
I did not want to let the book end. After closing the last page I sat for a few minutes, taking deep breaths and dabbing at my eyes. Then, very deliberately I turned the book over and started again at the beginning.
Ivan Doig’s story actually began with the last breath of his mother who died on Ivan’s sixth birthday. Her death left Ivan and his father, Charlie, on their own. The next few years would find Ivan in various schools and with various babysitters during the day. Charlie and Ivan visited local saloons at night. The two struggled through their grief until finally Charlie decided they had to make a change. He did the last thing in the world he wanted to do — he call his mother-in-law.
Bessie disliked Charlie back when her daughter first started dating Charlie. She forbid her to marry Charlie, but they married anyway and left Bessie out of their lives. Charlie didn’t care much for Bessie either, but he knew he needed her help in raising Ivan. Charlie sent for Bessie and she came. They worked out a tentative truce for the sake of Ivan and then, gradually, they became a true family.
All of these events took place in the 1940s and 50s along the Montana side of the Rocky Mountains. Charlie’s expertise was in ranching — both cattle and sheep. He worked hard, long hours to do whatever necessary to deliver stock to the buyers. Often it was backbreaking, heartbreaking work in the most extreme weather conditions. Bessie and Ivan added their labor to whatever contract Charlie had made. Bessie was an excellent camp cook and Ivan helped out in any way he could, even as a boy.
The experiences of Ivan and his family are truly amazing. I recognized examples of Ivan’s real-life drama that he incorporated in many of his novels. For instance, in Bartender’s Tale we see the young boy, Rusty’s perspective as he goes into his father’s saloon. Ivan’s life with his father and grandmother was so dramatic that I see why he was able to fill fifteen novels with rich examples of their daring Montana life.
I highly recommend This House Of Sky to readers who love stories set in the West, lovers of rich memoirs, and anyone who has read even one Ivan Doig novel. I’ve also suggested the book to writers. Ivan Doig’s descriptions and poetic language will inspire you.