Prairie Nocturne by Ivan Doig
hardcover, 371 pages
From the Publisher:
Prairie Nocturne is the epic saga of two former lovers sired in the pages of Ivan Doig's acclaimed Montana Trilogy. Susan Duff — the bossy, indomitable schoolgirl with a silver voice from Dancing at the Rascal Fair— has reached middle age alone, teaching voice lessons to the progeny of Helena's high society. Wesley Williamson, young married heir to the Double W cattle empire, has been forced out of a political career as a result of his affair with Susan having become known. Years later, Wes and Susan have reunited to share in an extraordinary goal: launching the singing career of Monty Rathbun—a man on the wrong side of the racial divide. In this triumph of sure-footed storytelling, motives and fates dangerously entangle.
Set in Montana, France, Scotland, and New York during the Harlem Renaissance, Prairie Nocturne is a deeply longitudinal novel that raises everlasting questions of allegiance, the grip of the past, and the cost of passion.
Readers of Doig know that he is known for western literature, often historical, set in Montana. Relationships between his characters or their families are intertwined in all of his books. In Prairie Nocturne Doig explores racism in Montana during the 1920's through the strong willed characters of Susan Duff (previously in Doig's Dancing at the Rascal Fair), Wes Williamson (of the Double W ranch), and Monty Rathbun (a black chauffeur/ranch hand). Much of the novel covers the voice training Susan gives Monty at the behest of her former lover Wes, and it is this act that set other events into motion. True to his characters he's giving voice to in this specific historical time there really is none of the language issues in Prairie Nocturne that I found in Ride With Me, Mariah Montana. Those familiar with Doig's other novels will recognize some common themes - the effect of the past on the future, and homage to family ties and the big sky landscape.
I found that Prairie Nocturne moved a little too slowly for me. I almost set it aside numerous times but then something would happen in the story so I'd keep reading. This happened almost right up to the end. I'm not sure if this was because I'm not a singer and couldn't fully appreciate what Susan and Monty were doing or if it was some other distraction outside of the book. This time the flashbacks in Prairie Nocturne, and found in all of Doig's novels, were less appreciated by me. Perhaps it was a mistake to read these particular two Doig novels back to back. All in all I like Ride With Me, Mariah Montana better.
As an interesting aside Harold Augenbraum in a Library Journal review of Prairie Nocturne wrote, "Astute observers will recognize many of the plot lines of the Elvis Presley movie Jailhouse Rock..."
The last ringleted girl had finished off the ballad on a hopeful note -- she would have given her ears for a praising word from Miss Duff -- and night and quiet came again to the house on Highland Street. Regular as the curtain of nightfall was Susan Duff's routine in closing away her teaching day. opening
As fixed as a star, the telltale glow of her gable window appeared over Helena at the last of dusk and burned on past respectable bedtime. You might think a woman of her early climb in life, singled out by her father's God for a soaring voice to lift His hymns and then casting away choirsong for the anthems of a harsh young century, would find it a hard comedown to be faced with a nightly audience of only herself. You'd be as wrong as you could be, Susan would have you know in a finger snap.pg 1-2
Time did not lag here in her industrious garret; it was not permitted to. pg. 3
She looked at Wes across the small white field of pages. Just looked at him. When you have cost a man a governorship, what further scandal does he think you are apt to inflict on him? pg.6
That was another of the jokes, using the red hanky like a matador's cape when he had to draw the bull away from a bucked-off rider. It occurred to him that it was actually pretty funny to be swabbing at himself this way with the hard-used piece of cloth, because at this point of the rodeo he was an irredeemable mess. The bib overalls six sizes too big drooped on him, and the screaming-red long underwear that was the other part of the costume was darkly wet with sweat. pg. 13-14
When he and his mother used to go to the church picnics, they would pause as soon as they were in sight of everyone but just out of hearing. pg 14
You get so sick of it you're a walking piece of resentment, he could have testified to the world. Again now he banked the anger he didn't dare let flame up. Maybe he was going to be lucky, maybe the show-off one was joshing about the whiteface makeup. pg. 16
Snooty wasn't quite the word for the way she'd stood there giving him a going over, or at least he hoped it wasn't. Keen, that was it, he tried to convince himself. Although maybe starchy said it better. pg. 28
"Miss Susan, honest, that's as good as I can do."
She seemed surprised. "Then simply do it the same way. I'm sorry, but one time through a song is not being a singer. That's merely" - she searched for an uncritical set of words - "whistling with your voicebox..." pg. 33
Ghosts ought to be interesting company, she reasoned, particularly here. Not gauzy visitors who popped out of walls and grabbed when least expected: she could do without those. But why shouldn't leftover spirits, to call them that, constitute a kind of echo of the soul, lingering tunelike in the air after life was gone? A nocturne, she wouldn't be surprised: ruminative, tending toward melancholy - after all, the poor things are no longer the freshest notes in the musical arrangement, are they - yet with a serenade melody that would not leave the mind. pg. 38