The Book That Changed My Life

Ivan Doig

Ivan Doig, 1979Ivan Doig was honored as a 1979 National Book Award Finalist for Contemporary Thought for The House of Sky: Landscapes of the Western Mind.

Photo: Marion Ettlinger

In college I gained a room of my own, the first of my life. The ungainly old house where Northwestern University stashed those of us who were financial-aid students had a few odd leftover nooks which had been made into single rooms, and I wangled the tiniest but most solitary of these, a tight fit aptly nicknamed the Shoe. One entire end of the room was taken up with a desk I'd quickly managed to pirate, disassemble, and put back together inside the Shoe like a galleon in a bottle-a massive, handsomely-shelved oak shrine for books. Textbooks on the desktop, and on the shelf above, "my" books, the writers I was reading on my own. I see them yet: Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen, a comely and enchanting Modern Library edition; and any and all from our greatest literary squire, William Faulkner, from The Sound and the Fury to the dearly bought hardback of his latest and last, The Reivers; and Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev, a literary sorceror's tome I wished upon and a quarter century later would have that dream come true when a Washington Post review, perhaps carried away by the coincidence of our first names, called me "an American Turgenev"; and Homage to Catalonia and the collected essays of the bard of the proletariat, George Orwell.

And one I hear:

"Trains cross the continent in a swirl of dust and thunder, the leaves fly down the tracks behind them...

The train was the vehicle of change for me in those college years. In another of my ranching family's financial defeats and retreats-we of the lariat proletariat-my father and my grandmother, who had helped raise me, moved from the handsome high country of northern Montana to a cheesebox house at a railroad shipping point named Ringling, population 45. The three round-trips a year I was making between the West and the Midwest became passages in more ways than one. Each time a day and a half to myself there in the absorbing lean and jostle of the Milwaukee Road coach cars, as if a more restless gravity worked within those coaches than in the outer world. A day and a half to gaze and doze, doze and gaze; to read, from the maestro of locomotion himself, Thomas Wolfe:

"The great trains cleave through gulch and gully, they rumble with spoked thunder....I will go up and down the country, and back and forth across the country on the great trains that thunder over America. I will go out West where States are square; Oh, I will to go to Boise, and Helena and Albuquerque. I will go to Montana and the two Dakotas...."

That Wolfe novel, Of Time and the River, put into me an everlasting awareness of life's gallant rhythms. The ceremony of coming and going, for instance. I am here to tell you, it was a royal feeling to be the only person getting on or off a train when it stopped in Ringling. For those few minutes you commanded the entire great power chain of the railroad. Trainmen, section crews, depot agent paused in their day because you were of Ringling. The engine hummed there in orange and black grandeur while you placed your foot on the metal step of ascent or descent. The whole dauntless trellis of ties and rails between Chicago and Ringling had been created for this.

Trip upon trip, the tussle of home earth and livelihood grew and grew in me, with Thomas Wolfe now lending a hand against Montana in his next novel that traveled with me, You Can't Go Home Again. Even a god can misspeak. I was to find, as a writer, that the makings of my first book, This House of Sky, and several novels since would all arise from back there in time and memory. But when it most counted, Wolfe had it wondrously right for me in Of Time and the River when his resounding love of language and piston-power energy of imagination carried me back and forth across the continent between the home I was born to and the home I would find in writing.