Author Ivan Doig grew up in the American west among the sheepherders and ranchers of Montana. His first book, House of Sky, is a memoir about his life growing up and the influences of his father, Charlie, and his grandmother, Bessie Ringer. Ivan’s mother, Berneta, died when he was only six years old so his memories of her faded with the passage of time – until he found letters she wrote to her brother stationed in the Pacific during World War II. Heart Earth is Doig’s homage to his mother based on those letters.House of Sky
This was Doig’s first book, which was nominated for a National Book Award, and it garnered accolades from the moment it was published. The book begins with the day of his mother’s death – June 27, 1945 – which was also Ivan’s sixth birthday. His mother suffered from asthma, yet she worked alongside her husband on the sheep ranges high in the mountains every summer.
The book intersperses snippets of Charlie’s commentary, which is both profound and profane at times, with the story of how Ivan and Charlie made their way after Berneta’s death. The Doigs were of Scottish descent – hardworking and stubborn (or “mulishness” as Doig referred to it). The second chapter outlines the history of how the Doigs came to settle in Montana and Charlie’s life up until the time he met Berneta Ringer at the age of thirty – she was fifteen. They courted for six years and were married when Berneta turned twenty-one in 1934.
After his mother’s death, his father married the ranch cook, Ruth. However, the marriage didn’t last and it became apparent that a “woman’s touch” was still needed. Berneta’s mother, Bessie Ringer, fit that bill although she and Charlie often had a contentious relationship. Over the years, however, they worked together to raise Ivan. The remembrances throughout the book express a fondness for both of their influences on his life.
The book is prose, pure and simple. It is a uniquely American story. In the words of the book’s synopsis:
What Doig deciphers from his past is not only a sense of the land and how it shapes us, but also of our inextricable connection to those who shape our values in the search for intimacy, independence, love and family. This magnificently told story is at once especially American and quietly universal in its ability to awaken a longing for an explicable past.
Well worth your time to read and savor.
Ivan Doig thought his first book, House of Sky, would be the last memoir he wrote, until he found his mother’s letters which had been stowed away for forty-five years. Berneta had begun writing the letters to her brother Wally, stationed in the Pacific in those last months of World War II. The letters were found in Wally’s trunk after his death, and the only correspondence Ivan Doig had ever seen belonging to his mother.
Ivan’s parents had been living in Arizona where his father Charlie worked at an aluminum plant which was part of the war effort. But Charlie worked too hard. To her brother she wrote: “His stomach bothers him all the time. He is so thin, I’m worried to death about Charlie.”
Whereas his first memoir was about life after his mother died, Doig takes various passages from his mother’s letters and expounds on them, telling her story in this book. She was an adventurous type and she was the glue that held their family together. The dry Arizona desert was probably better for her health, but the work there was detrimental to Charlie’s health so they returned to Montana and just a short time later she died.
The book wasn’t really something Ivan Doig expected to write after House of Sky. He described the letters as an “odd gift” bequeathed to him from his Uncle Wally. Sometimes her letters were gossipy and sometimes just the mundane day-to-day stuff-of-life. But, as Doig relates they were “individualistically deft enough to carry the story I saw in them, her story, my father’s and my own.”
I wrote once, of the pull of the past and childhood landscape, that you can’t not go home again. The story I found compressed there in that half-year of my mother’s last letters proved that to me again.
I recommend reading these books one after the other, beginning with House of Sky. If you’re not familiar with Ivan Doig’s work, I think you will become a fan – and if you do, be sure and check out his novels. I’ve reviewed three of them: The Whistling Season, Work Song and Sweet Thunder. I noticed recently that all of his books are now in eBook format (the older ones were only in hardcover and paperback until recently) and I put them all on my Amazon “wish list” (they are available at Barnes and Noble as well).
Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!
© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.