This is a near-flawless gem of storytelling. It is not a glamorous diamond of dubious origin or a smoky topaz that speaks of distant lands. It is a Yogo sapphire, a native gem of Montana, a stone that speaks of the endless blue of prairie skies, of cornflowers tucked in mountain valleys, of streams running high with wild trout.
Doig’s narrator, Paul Milliron, is Montana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction. It is the late 1950’s and Paul has returned to his hometown in the prairie of central Montana to close its one-room schoolhouse. Paul’s story takes us back to 1909, when the prairies bordering the Rocky Mountains were still gateways to an untamed West. We relive a few crucial years of Paul’s coming-of-age, when his father, his brothers and one unforgettable teacher form a constellation of influence, love and protection and through which Paul sees the wonder of family, community and Halley’s Comet.
There is nothing here but character, setting, plot. And these are everything. Don’t mistake the simplicity and gentleness of Doig’s narrative as anything other than sheer genius. There are no tricks, no clever twists, no moralizing, sentimentality or scolding to disguise Doig’s true purpose: to tell a great story. A great American story.
This is a book I would read aloud to my children, to woo them into loving literature, to fill their imagination with young boys on horseback homesteading in the American West, to make them yearn to translate cryptic Latin proverbs and to allow them to recognize and be grateful for the teachers who give them the gift of knowledge.
Ivan Doig is a national treasure. This book is a work of beauty.