Wednesday, July 16, 2014

"English Creek"
by Ivan Doig

English Creek by Ivan Doig is about a soon-to-be fifteen-year-old Montana boy forced to learn during the summer of 1939 harsh lessons about people and life. The younger son of a district national forest ranger director, John Angus (Jick) McCaskill experiences unsettling experiences that force him to feel, reflect, and conclude. At the summer’s conclusion he has developed a better understanding of the damage stubbornness of will can cause within a family, and he is more perceptive and accepting of the character deficiencies of flawed people.

In a conversation with his school friend Ray Heaney, Jick, thinking about his parents and his brother Alec, reveals his frustration about grown-ups arguing and falling “out over it. Why can’t they just say, here’s what it was about, it’s over and done with? Get it out of their systems?” Ray accuses Jick of thinking too much. Jick responds: “Thinking is thinking. It happens in spite of a person. … I don’t have any choice. This stuff I’m talking about is on my mind whether or not I want it to be.”

What Jick must think about is the argument his parents had had with Alec about Alec’s immediate future. Four years older than Jick, Alec has university potential. From early childhood he has demonstrated the ability to compute rapidly large numbers in his head. His parents have sacrificed during the Depression years to finance Alec’s higher education. Accustomed to success, as willful as his parents, Alec is determined to get married, work as a cowboy on a large cattle ranch, buy eventually a parcel of land, and attempt to raise cattle. He is unwilling to heed his father’s advice: “… whatever the hell you do, you need to bring an education to it these days. That old stuff of banging a living out of this country by sheer force of behavior doesn’t work. … You’ll be starting in a hole. … And an everlasting climb out.” Alec is insistent about getting married. He is unwilling to wait the four years that would enable him to get a university degree. “… we got to start [our lives]. … And we’re going to do it married. Not going to wait our life away.”

Jick is deeply disturbed. “… I somehow knew even then, that the fracture of a family is not a thing that happens clean and sharp … No, it is like one of those worst bone breaks, a shatter.” He hopes that reconciliation is yet possible. He talks to his mother about it. She describes Leona, Alec’s finance, as “too young and … flibberty. Leona is in love with the idea of men, not one man.” She exhorts Jick not to “go through life paying attention to the past at the expense of the future. That you don’t pass up chances because they’re new and unexpected.” Fairly late in the novel Jick visits his brother at the cattle ranch and discovers that Leona has cooled about getting married and Alec is working a demeaning job. Jick asks: “What is it about the damned life here that you think is so great?” Alec answers: “That it’s my own.” Days later, Jick attempts to force a reconciliation.

This is the conflict that drives the novel. As a parent of grown children, I identify with the theme that parents, utilizing their wisdom, must not only advise but strongly advocate beneficial paths to their child’s successful future. I also know from experience that every child is different and in some instances the willfulness of the maturing child trumps all degrees of parental persuasion and persistence. Looking back on this summer of 1939, the mature adult Jick McCaskill comments: “Ever since the night of the supper argument our parents thought they were contending with Alec’s cowboy phase or with Leona or the combination of the two. … What they were up against was the basic Alec.”

Jick’s secondary conflict involves his desire to learn about an apparent rift between his father Varick McCaskill and Stanley Meixell, an old codger that Jick and Varick encounter as they ride into the higher slopes of the Two Medicine National forest, just east of the Continental Divide. Varick McCaskill is the Two Medicine National Forest top ranger. He and Jick have ridden out to take a count of hundreds of sheep grazing in the national forest. Meixell is leading a pack horse carrying food and supplies to the first of several sheep herders. Jick remembers Stanley’s presence several times at his parents’ dinner table when he was four, of he and Alec being amused by Stanley’s revelations to them “that where he came from they called milk moo juice and eggs cackle-berries and molasses long-tailed sugar. Yet of his ten or so years since we had last seen him I couldn’t have told you anything whatsoever.” The talk between Varick and Stanley on the mountain slope is strained. Then, noticing that Stanley’s right hand is badly cut, Varick volunteers Jick to accompany Stanley on his trip to the sheep herders. “Those packs and knots are gonna be several kinds of hell, unless you’re more left-handed than you’ve ever shown.”

Jick is astonished and, thereafter, resentful. Not only is Stanley seriously incapacitated and his pack horse extremely ornery. Jick discovers that Stanley is an alcoholic. Jick has to do virtually all of the essential physical tasks; skin dead, wet sheep; provide his and Stanley’s meals; nurse Stanley’s wound; and deal with unexpected calamities caused by the recalcitrant pack horse. In response to Stanley implicit apology, “I hope you don’t feel hard used,” Jick, feeling exactly that way, answers, “No, it’s all been an education.”

Part of what Jick learned was that Stanley had been the original Two Medicine National Park head ranger -- had, in fact, drawn the actual boundaries. Having formed immediately a low opinion of Stanley, hearing this from him, Jick is surprised. He is forced to think. What exactly was the relationship between his father and Stanley. Why had there been an apparent cautiousness in their recent conversation? Where had Stanley been the past ten years? Jick learns the answers during a dangerous fire in the Two Medicine forest and realizes that Stanley is a man he should respect.

My only criticism of this novel is that the story took too long to reach its conclusion. In his acknowledgments, Doig indicates specific subject matter that he conscientiously researched. He uses this information liberally throughout the book, some of which doesn’t pertain directly to Jick’s conflicts. The information is instructive to any reader that appreciates how particular people lived in a specific locality at a specific time in history. We read about the work of a packjack, we witness a community Fourth of July picnic and rodeo, we learn how hay is stacked, we experience an out-of-control forest fire. We meet unusual types of people. (Doig is excellent at characterization and the use of dialogue) I liked the information but wanted more to see how the story concluded.