- Virginia Johnson
Ivan Doig’s This House of Sky is a memoir set in the rugged, sheep-raising terrain of Montana. It was a time when the last of the small-town ranchers were on their way out, pushed along by the Great Depression and rich men buying up failed farms to add to their own.
The author’s people were not of the rich kind. They were scrappy, immigrant stock. Ivan’s grandfather came with family from Scotland. They ran sheep til their luck ran out. Then they worked for the big ranchers. Ivan’s father was a little guy, but he broke broncos—sometimes breaking his own bones doing it -- rode herd on sheep, bossed the other hands, and fell in love with a 16-year-old girl.
They courted until she was nearly 21 as her parents did not approve of her grinning, rope-twirling suitor. Their daughter, after all, was in delicate health. Asthma back then had no real treatment, and a ranch foreman’s wife’s life was sure to be a tough one.
Tough it might have been, but she enjoyed it and took the risk to have the little boy who grew up the hard way to tell this story. This House of Sky is a book with springtime mountainsides and harsh winters tucked into its pages along with warm and very human portraits of the people who thrived and died there.
Sometime after this novel was published, Ivan Doig received a most welcome inheritance—a stash of letters written by his mother that revealed so much more of her tough, sweet character that he was led to write a sequel, Heart Earth. Doig’s writing with these books and his other novels, many of which are set in the West of his youth, is strong and good. Readers who enjoy this story might also want to try Earl Hamner’s The Homecoming, his novelized memoir of growing up in the Depression-era mountains of Virginia.