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Imagining Mother : HEART EARTH: A Memoir, By Ivan Doig (Atheneum: $19; 160 pp.)

August 29, 1993|Michael Dorris | Michael Dorris' collection of short stories, "Working Men," will be published in October

"Imagination," Shakespeare wrote, "bodies forth/The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen/Turns them to shape, and gives to airy nothing/A local habitation and a name."

It's an apt description for "Heart Earth," novelist and memoirist Ivan Doig's tough and poignant piecing together of his early past. Prompted in 1986 by an unexpected inheritance of newsy letters written during World War II by his mother (who died from an asthma attack on her son's 5th birthday) to her brother Wally, then serving aboard the Ault in the Pacific, Doig uses the slender frame of terse communiques, augmented by his own fragmentary early childhood recollections, to illuminate his parents' brief life as a couple. The man and woman who emerge are complex and determinedly independent, but they share an abiding affection for the fierce Montana environment of their upbringing and for the son they, against the odds, produced.

Nothing came easy for this pair, except kindness. Charlie Doig, descendant of Scots ranchers, and Berneta Ringer, from a clan "barely clinging to the planet," were used to adversity. "My (maternal) grandfather Tom," Doig concludes, "seems to have been one of those natural bachelors who waver into marriage at middle age and never quite catch up to their condition. My grandmother Bessie, I know for sure, was a born endurer who would drop silently furious at having to take on responsibility beyond her own, then go ahead and shoulder every last least bit of it. Certainly over time their marriage became a bone-and-gristle affair that matched the Moss Agate country they were caught in."

Their eldest and only daughter, Berneta, "always slept with three pillows propping her up, angle akin to a hospital bed, so that she could breathe past the asthma," a chronic health condition that prompted a childhood move from Wisconsin to Montana, and later, after her marriage to Charlie Doig, to the dry air of Arizona.

Berneta wrote the way a person perpetually short of breath might speak: staccato, telegraphic sentences, with little in the way of description and all emphasis on the shotgun transmission of vital information. Yet her adult son, decades later, manages artfully to read (no: sing ) between the lines to find the barricaded personality:

"The box curtains of the mind: We never fully imagine, let alone believe in what was said to one another by those impossible beings, our parents before they were our parents," the author says, and then, in the magical prose of "Heart Earth," proves himself wrong. Charlie and Berneta, their extended families and neighbors, their dogs and their sheep, their landscape and their horizons fairly burst with immediacy.

Doig, a colloquial stylist without equal ("English Creek," "Dancing at the Rascal Fair"), refuses to idealize the hard-scrapple struggle of his parents' existence. His father, he tells us, is "built like a brimming shotglass." His mother "cannot be sculpted from sugar," but rather "assembles herself as someone not growing out of childhood but simply flinging it off." Her mother, who after Berneta's death made a steely peace with Charlie Doig in order that they might jointly raise the young Ivan, is even more formidable: "The only thing about my grandmother that ever went gray was her hair," Doig confides. "All else stayed brisk, immutable; the pleasant enough proclamation of face . . . the body of German sturdiness. The hands and arms of Bessie Ringer were scarred from every kind of barbwire work, yet there she sat hooking away at the most intricate of crochetwork, snowflaking the rough rooms of her existence with doily upon doily."

Like Doig's critically acclaimed 1978 "This House of Sky" (recently reissued in a hardcover edition with a new preface by the author), for which this work acts as a kind of self-standing prequel, "Heart Earth" is a book that repeatedly proves the power of language. Whether he's detailing the "inscribing shadows" of the Southwestern desert populated by cattle so gaunt "they look like they'd eat the eyebrows off you," his father lighting a cigarette "to try to bribe his nerves," sheep so officious "you'd think the fools had appointments somewhere," or an eavesdropping child "prowling" with his ears, Ivan Doig uses words like oil paint to create canvasses of enduring value and originality.

Nowhere, of course, does he better excel than in depicting the mountains and valleys of his native Montana. Just listen: "The place has the feel of getting away with something, pulling a trick at odds with the surrounding geography. The ever so level deck of meadow; how in the world did that slip in here between convulsive gulches that nearly stand on end? Then the cabin knoll, just enough of an ascension to lord it over the meadow; terrace in the wilderness, no less? And the water helling off down the gulch is a surprising amount of creek, yet its flow is disguised away, hidden beneath steep banks until you peek straight down into the disturbed glass of its riffles."

Such passages--and there are many in this gem of a book--are enough to drive other writers crazy with envy, even as we cannot help but exclaim them aloud to anyone within shouting distance.

Finally, though, "Heart Earth" is a love story, the gift of a child to a parent who wouldn't stay forgotten, to a woman who, after all her hardship, could simply write, "I got along okay"--who firmly believed you must "extend yourself full slam." A strong, taciturn, brave woman, who "nobody got over."

Neither will you.

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