Ivan Doig’s Prairie Nocturne
Admittedly, most of Ivan Doig’s Prairie Nocturne takes place beyond the scope of this blog-largely in the far-flung reaches of New York and Central Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front-but I couldn’t pass up an excuse to reread it. With my sincerest apologies to Whistling Season, I think that Prairie Nocturne is Doig’s best work. For one thing, his ornately literary voice lends itself much better to third person than first. For another, the book contextualizes Montana in the larger world of the 1920s, an era I find fascinating.
Prairie Nocturne could be described as the story of Monty Rathburn, a black choreboy on the Double W ranch with an inspired voice and an eye for bettering himself. It could equally by described as the story of Susan Duff, the prickly vocal teacher and daughter of pioneers who takes Monty under her wing. Susan played a minor role as a schoolgirl in Dancing at the Rascal Fair, neatly dovetailing Prairie Nocturne with Doig’s English Creek Trilogy (English Creek, Dancing at the Rascal Fair and Ride with Me Mariah, Montana). It might even be described as the story of Wes Williamson, part owner of the Double W whose aspirations for the ranch seem to encompass all the vastness of the Montana plains. All this and more, Prairie Nocturne ranges over topics the way Williamson cattle range over land. Suffrage, Prohibition, Harlem in the ’20s, and the Great War all lend their tales to the book. Nearer to home, Doig addresses cattle barons and cavalry, the railroad and honyonkers, drought and the Klu Klux Klan, and-ever his strongest suit-the battle to carve a living from the unforgiving Montana land.
Perhaps most importantly, enough of the story concerns Helena for me to justify a post on the book. However, come to think of it, most of the action in Helena is turning point and climax, and I’m loath to give anything away. I suppose you’ll just have to read Prairie Nocturne on your next visit.