This is the novel I’ve been waiting for! I mean during this pandemic. I’ve wanted something to get lost in, something not too fraught, something to entertain and distract me. My Library had two of Doig’s many books, so I got this early work of fiction from 1984 and his final novel, Last Bus to Wisdom from 2015, the year Doig died.
English Creek is a coming-of-age story, unfolding in Montana at the end of the Great Depression. The first person narrator is Jick McCaskill, 14 years old, the younger of two boys whose father works for the US Forest Service, ranger and manager of a section of National Forest. Their mother, though cushioned from poverty by her husband’s steady employment, leads the hard and often anxious life of a prairie woman.
As summer unfolds, Jick recognizes that his family of four is changing. His brother rebels against a long-held, carefully laid plan that he should go to college and leaves to work at a nearby ranch for the season. Jick is unsettled. Events cause him to take on increasing responsibilities.
This “set up” of the plot took time, but I enjoyed it because the descriptions of people, land, animals and events were so vivid and meticulous. Two thirds of the way through the book, I realized SOMETHING big was going to happen, but I couldn’t imagine what.
Spoiler alert! I can’t resist sharing the nature of the emergency that slammed the McCaskill family. After weeks of dry heat, lightening started a wildfire that endangered Jick and his father and scores of firefighters.
The parallels with the current situation NOW in the American west are many. Doig writes in detail about fighting a forest fire with the limited resources available in 1939. I couldn’t stop reading.
At the same time, Jick struggles to learn about this family and the people around them. Some situations are clarified. Others remain secret. Just like real life. The narrative ends as World War II breaks out in Europe.
This would make a GREAT book club choice! The parallels to our present situation are many. What is the meaning of community? How does a family navigate change? What pieces of the past should be shared with a child, and when? How do humans live in an ecosystem?
This book reminds me of Badluck Way,. reviewed here., another coming-of-age story.