English Creek by Ivan Doig
Two features of English Creek are memorable long after details are forgotten. First is the companionship of story pace to geography. During its 340 pages, it seems to change scenes only four times. Told from Jick’s, a fourteen year old boy’s perspective, each of the four movements of time in the summer of 1939, could hold their own as stand-alone stories. There is not a frenetic throw down of action scenes common in today’s dramas, yet it is not languid in the sultry tradition of Tennessee Williams or Jean Rhys. This is in Montana where even the most generous of summers does not give fruit off the tree without hard labor and dawn temperatures still nip at the ankle with the promise of a coming fall. Movement is steady through the book with all persons paying attention to summer’s work so there will be winter survival, yet the pace is country calm and measured.
Western geography is still, large and often silent in its magnificence if the observer will see it as such. Through Jick’s adolescent eyes Doig takes the reader through the rancher’s experience of herding, a 4th of July celebration, gathering hay and a threatening wildfire. Tying the stories together is Jick’s search for himself through the intricacies of history and current events of his family. The family friction is simple and timeless. Jick watches a confrontation between his father and older brother and concludes: “But if amid the previous evening’s contention my father and Alec could have been put under oath, each Bibled to the deepest of the truths in him, my father would have had to say something like: ‘I don’t want you making my mistakes over again.’ And Alec to him: ‘Your mistakes were yours, they’ve got nothing to do with me.'” But, of course, they do. Our parents’ mistakes or hopes for us always make a difference in our lives. That precocious quote also is an example of Doig’s flowing, peaking, ebbing, swirling statements that sometimes start with a small observation and turn into cowboy philosophy.
Use of language is the second memorable item of this book. Cowboy humor is sprinkled generously and Jick’s language gets right to the brink of pretentiousness with phrases like, “what a wilderness is the thicket of family,” and, “An imminent meal is my notion of a snug fortune.” His age and earnestness see him through observing the confusion of the actions and history of all the adults around him, as well as his own feelings and actions. The reader isn’t surprised Jick successfully moves through his fourteenth summer in this gentle coming of age story on the cusp of WWII. Instead, the reader realizes the polite time of her visit is over, and it is time to return to the business of one’s own life, perhaps with more thought to wording sentences in casual conversation.