English Creek by Ivan
I’m a total sucker for a first-person narrative told in a really
engaging voice. And in this book—the voice is perfection.
For years now—years—I’ve
been thinking someday I’d read something by Ivan Doig.
Why did I wait so long?
(for more about me being a numbskull, here you go
|(photo credit: Library of Congress)
Fourteen-year-old Jick McCaskill narrates this story, and he is a
completely likeable young fellow. And the world sometimes mystifies him, the
way the world does when a person’s fourteen. His older brother is defying their
parents by working at a land baron’s ranch and then getting himself engaged,
and that’s stirring things up. Plus Jick is starting to get the sense that his
parents are actual people, and that
they had lives before he showed up on the scene. And that’s always a
So there in Montana,
in the midst of the Great Depression, Jick is growing up. “Frankly, high among
my hopes about the business of growing up was that I would get a considerably
more substantial horse out of it.” (pp. 14-15)
But he also finds himself wanting to ask his parents
questions—about his brother and the new tension in the family, about how his
parents met, about their younger years, about the forest ranger who preceded
his father in the job and why he fell from grace—and he hardly knows how to
As I read, I kept noting pages that contained stuff I really
liked. Here are two examples:
“We tell ourselves whatever is needed to go from one scene of life
to the next.” (p. 40) Man, if that ain’t true.
And this scene, in which Jick’s dad is calling the dance at the
“I stepped away from Ray, soldiered myself in front of my mother,
‘Mrs. McCaskill, I don’t talk through my nose as pretty as the guy
you usually gallivant around with. But suppose I could have this dance with you
Her face underwent that rinse of surprise that my father sometimes
showed about her. She cast a look toward the top of my head as if just
realizing my height. Then came her sidelong smile, and her announcement:
‘I never could resist you McCaskill galoots.’” (pp. 204-205)
How can you not like that boy and his family?
Jick’s narrative voice is so lovely, and the voices of the other
characters are just plain interesting,
When I read the final section of the reader’s guide in the book, I
found out part of the reason why: Doig says that he found it easy to write in
Jick’s voice, and he mentions that he had decades’ worth of file cards of
phrasing and dialogue. In the Acknowledgments, he writes, “Thus it is very
nearly forty years now that I have been listening to Montanans.” (p. 337)
And guys, he listened well. And by writing well, he lets us listen
to their voices, too. The results are splendid.