30 June 2011

More about Montana before mid-century

I was enchanted by a four-year-old recently. It probably helps that she's a granddaughter, but she's pretty wonderful without that status.

I was planning on spending a couple evenings with her, but for most of that time, she'd be asleep. So I grabbed a small paperback by Ivan Doig (another of those books I picked up at the used book sale). I figured it would be easy to hold on to while I read to stay awake.

The book was Heart Earth. It was written about a decade after Doig wrote the autobiographical This House of Sky. In This House... Doig told the story of growing up with his widowed father and his maternal grandmother. The time wasn't easy for any of them. Doig's mother died on his 6th birthday. His grandmother joined the household because there was no other way for his father to continue earning a living and maintaining a family. Father and mother-in-law never seemed to like each other, but they joined forces to create a family.

I haven't read This House of Sky, but I did read Heart Earth. Heart Earth is a recreation (or reimagining) by Doig of his mother. After his uncle died, he was handed a packet of letters from his mother to her brother. Doig's uncle served on a warship in the Pacific during World War II, and his mother had time and inclination to write to her brother and share a lot of her thoughts and feelings with him.

From these letters, Doig attempts to describe his mother and her married life. There are many holes in the description, as we'd expect. In spite of the apparent intimacy of the letters, he writes about events more than about the person who was his mother. Maybe that's to be expected, too. Doig was too young to have many memories or first hand impressions. This writing exercise seems primarily to be a personal project in which Doig tries to find out more about the mother he never knew.

I never really got engaged with the story or the people. And it wasn't because I read most of this during a couple nights of babysitting. Doig's prose is rich and smooth. It's also pretty passionless and non-judgemental. His other books have plot that this real life biography doesn't. The book ends with his mother's death. As the number of unread pages dwindled, I knew where the death was going to happen. No dramatic build up or climax here. Just sorrow, but even that was mostly implied.

Maybe you've read Heat Earth and found things there I didn't. If so, write and tell this little bit of the world about your experience with the book.

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