Before I really get into this, I should clarify that I respond to fiction and non-fiction in very distinct ways. I’ve always hated literary criticism because fiction tends to be very emotional for me, and when I love something and really connect with it, I don’t want to talk about syntax and symbolism and shit. With non-fiction, I respond in a more analytical way that allows me to be both passionately in love and capable of critique. So since this is about a novel, it’s not so much critique as it is personal response.

On that note, a quick recap: the book is set in the 1930s, in Montana, and is a coming-of-age story told through the perspective of Jick, the 14-year-old son of a forest ranger (Mac), who is trying to sort out his family’s past. English Creek is a fantastic book, but it meant more to me than just great fiction.

My dad’s people are from Montana, all around Lewistown. There’s still a bunch of them there, although I’ve never visited (I figure the trip for my great-grandmother’s funeral when I was six months old doesn’t count). My parents divorced when I was young, and I grew up without much connection to my father, his family, or their history. Instead, I grew up one of four people with a funny Dutch name (counting my mother and two brothers) in a small town in Southern California, heavily influenced by my mom’s family. They’re good people, but the larger family is neither large nor close. Not to mention that both my grandfathers were career military men, and my parents and their siblings have lived all over the country with no apparent attachment to any one place.

I’ve always been interested in history, especially of the West. As I got older, it seemed shameful that I’d spent so much time studying history and yet I knew almost nothing of my own history. Throughout college and grad school, I talked to both sides of my family more and started doing some casual genealogical research, mostly on my dad’s side (having an unusual name helps narrow down internet searches). Imagine my surprise when I discovered that my father came from an absolutely enormous family in Montana. I discovered the work of Mary Clearman Blew, who’s some kind of second or third cousin. I got in touch with some relatives who were willing to tell me stories and show me pictures.

As a kid, I read Laura Ingalls Wilder and day-dreamed about living in the Old West, homesteading on the plains and traveling by covered wagon. As an adult, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the West—the mythology, the landscape, the relationship between people and place. What I find most fascinating about my own family history is that incredible sense of place—not just that there’s a place in Montana where people wouldn’t have to ask how to pronounce my last name, but that the people seem to be so connected to that place, a part of it really. The land is more than just a place they used to live. One of these days, I’ll finally get myself together enough to finally make it up to Montana, to see the old family ranches and my great-grandparents’ house in Lewistown (which my great-aunt still owns).

Friends recommended Doig’s work to me for ages. I picked up several of his novels when I found them conveniently in front of me in used bookstores. But up until last year they’d just lingered on my shelf with all the other books I buy and toss on the “to read” pile. And then I finally picked up English Creek, expecting that I’d like it, but not expecting to be blown away. Like I said, it’s a great book. But more than that, the coincidence of time and place makes me feel as though I was reading some small segment of my own ancestral past. My great-grandfather and grandfather would have been of an age with Mac and Jick. My great-grandfather grew up on a ranch; he trained as a surveyor and raised his family in town, but my grandfather spent summers out on the family ranches and both of them would have recognized the life Doig described so well.

There was a line, just an aside really, that went straight through to my heart. “They are beyond our knowing, those once young people who become our parents, which to me has always made them that much more fascinating.” How often I’ve thought the same thing to myself, although generally not as eloquently. I love old photos, and have become the keeper of my family’s collection. I find myself particularly fascinated by a series of pictures of my mother at about 20, only four years before I was born, but looking so utterly unlike the person I grew up with. One of the greatest crimes of time is that you can never know your parents when they are on an equal level with you. And I’ve looked on even older photos with similar feelings, particularly for the people and places I have never known. Sometimes, to entertain myself, I think about those silly college essay questions, the ones about which historical figures you’d most want to meet. There are plenty of famous people I’d like to talk to, but mostly, I’d like to meet my own family. I’d like to ask my great-grandfather Tuffy what it was like to work the railroad in Wyoming; to ask my grandpa Doug why he had “Phyllis” tattooed on his arm when none of his wives had been named Phyllis; to hear all about my great-grandmother Ethel’s wild life, and why my great-grandfather never stopped loving her, even when they’d been divorced for twenty years. I’d like to walk across the ranch with old Abraham, my great-great-grandfather, see the massive Montana sky I’ve heard so much about, and hear him tell me what it was like to start a homestead out there in 1888. And I guess the ultimate point here is that, reading Doig’s work, I feel like I did, just a little bit.

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