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Rocky Mountain Blues : DANCING AT THE RASCAL FAIR by Ivan Doig (Atheneum Publishers: $18.95; 384 pp.)

October 18, 1987|Winifred Blevins | Blevins is a writer and critic living in Jackson, Wyo

In his impressive new novel, "Dancing at the Rascal Fair," Ivan Doig stakes a claim to the mantle worn by Wallace Stegner for half a century, the reputation as our foremost recorder and interpreter of life in the historic high, dry American West. With "This House of Sky," "English Creek" and especially this book, he has earned it.

In "Rascal Fair," Doig returns to the mythical Two Medicine country of "English Creek," a creation based on the region of his own growing up, along the Rocky Mountain front in Montana. And the principal character here is Angus McCaskill, the grandfather of "English Creek's" Jick McCaskill.

Angus is the McCaskill who uproots the family tree from Scottish soil and replants it in Montana. In 1889 he crosses the Atlantic with friend Rob Barclay, a journey by boat that terrifies Angus. He journeys on westward, drawn by the siren song of free land. He claims a homestead and ekes out a living raising sheep.

Angus' life does not turn out to be the adventure the young Scot was romantically looking forward to, the rascal fair of the title, a carnival of traveling musicians and gay Highlanders, a time for dancing:

Dancing at the rascal fair,

devils and angels all were there,

heel and toe, pair by pair,

dancing at the rascal fair.

Dancing at the rascal fair,

moon and star, fire and air,

choose your mate and make a pair,

dancing at the rascal fair.

Homestead life proves to be hard--physically, economically, especially emotionally. Angus falls in love with a young woman--the depiction of his rapture is the great charm of the novel--but she choses another.

Angus proceeds. He raises his sheep. Marries a second-choice woman. Has one son. But he never stops longing for his first sweetheart, and that passion sours his life. It turns his lifelong friend Rob into an enemy. It keeps his wife at a distance. Most painfully, it turns his son against him.

Doig makes these losses seem not exceptional but the human condition, and the way we cope with them the fabric of what we are. His greatest strength is exploring the coagulated feelings of human beings within the family. His characters are not the morality-play heroes of the genre Western, but real people, tangled in their feelings, handicapped by their deficiencies, deeply decent, yearning for closeness, finding it only intermittently. Their melancholy dance of life is rendered with exquisite nuance.

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