SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

Parnassus Book Reviews

A Review by George R. Pasley


November 27, 2007

Ketchikan, Alaska - Over this past year I have enjoyed reading the novels of Ivan Doig. Born in Montana, current resident of Washington, Ivan's historical novels feature wonderful character development and a wide variety of writing styles. Most of them are set in Montana, in the time since statehood.

jpg English Creek by Ivan Doig

I want to share one scene from one novel with you. The novel is "English Creek," published in 1984 by Scribner, printed in paperback in 2005.

English Creek is the name of a fictional rural community. It is a first person narrative told by Jick (short for Jarrick) McCaskill. It narrates the summer months of Jick's 14th year of age. His older brother, Alec, is away for the summer- and for good, it turns out- working on the big ranch in the valley. His father, Varick, is a forest ranger. His mother, Beth, is portrayed as a no-nonsense farm wife. Thought the only woman in the household, she certainly held her own. The men in the story are always on their toes as far as Beth is concerned.

Jick is of the age where he is starting to notice things. He notices a strange relationship between his father and a local drifter, a man who is an alcoholic. He worries about the rift between his parents and his older brother. The plot of the story involves Jick trying to figure these things out, and their meaning on his place in the world, (he wonders about that, too).

The year is 1939. The rural community has suffered from plagues of locust, droughts, forest fires and collapsed economy. The old rural neighborhoods where neighbor helped neighbor are disappearing.

The scene takes place at the July 4 picnic in town. Unbeknownst to Jick, his mother has been asked to be the main speaker at the community celebration. She is a former schoolteacher and a member of one of the local school boards for the one room schools.

She stands up to speak, and it is a biography of a certain man, now deceased. But Beth takes the opportunity to talk about the way things have changed, and that change is not for the good. She finds opportunity in her speech to cleverly and subtly incriminate certain "greedy" factions of the community.

The crowd takes notice. Some cheer. Others shift nervously on their feet.

Her speech concludes, "There is much wrong in this world, and I suppose I am not known to be especially bashful about my list of those things. But I think it could not be more than right that we honor in this valley a man who savvied the land and its livelihood, who honored the earth instead of coveting it. It could not be more right that tall Ben English in his black hat amidst green fields, coaxing a head of water to make itself into hay, is the one whose name this creek carries."

Beth steps down from the podium, and her son describes the reception of her speech:

"but of us all, it was only to my father that she said, in what would have been a demand if there hadn't been the tint of anxiousness in it: 'Well? What did you think?'

My father reached and with his forefinger traced back into place a banner of her hair that the creek breeze had lifted and lain across her ear.

'I think,' he said, 'I think that being married to you is worth all the risk'" (p. 157)

The scenes that follow feature a 4th of July square dance in which Jick dances with his mother, a tale wonderfully told.

All in all, the novel- which also features some sheep ranching, mountain trail horse riding, and forest fire fighting- manages to capture and freeze simultaneously a moment of early adolescence and of another America.

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