Ivan Doig's mother died on his sixth birthday, just as World War II was ending. His vague memories of her play out to the sound of coughing and wheezing, a result of her life-threatening bouts of asthma. About forty years after Berneta's death, Ivan was surprised to receive a small box of letters she had written to her brother during the last months of both the war and her life.
Doig's Heart Earth is based on those letters, a tremendous gift from his late maternal uncle. The short book also serves as a prequel to Doig's longer memoir, House of Sky.
Through his mother's letters, Ivan is reminded of how she never let her serious asthma take away from her enjoyment and participation in life and work. She didn't back down from whatever needed to be done: from single-handedly moving sheep to better pasture to pushing the truck out of deep mud, from working a sewing machine to cooking for a crew of ranch hands.
The Doigs were dangerously close to being anachronistic for their time: They were generally more comfortable on a horse herding sheep in the Montana mountains than they were with small-town life in industrializing Arizona. Prompted by Berneta's letters, Ivan recalls the family's trek from Montana to the Southwest in hope of finding a lung-friendly environment. This move from rancher to Defense Department worker was a loving sacrifice made by Ivan's father and no mean feat in the days of gas and food rationing.
Through his mother's own words, Ivan is able to recall with bittersweet fondness some of the golden moments of his fifth year: riding horses, following his uncle's progress across the Pacific, spending a day in town with his dad, and listening in while his mother gossiped with her friends. He also finds an unexpected kinship with his mother as wordsmith.
Doig wrote Heart Earth more than decade after he wrote his first memoir, and if the book has a flaw it's that his loving story of Berneta's final months starts off assuming that you've already read House of Sky. Fortunately, the reader quickly feels up to speed and is easily transported to 1945 America and the world of this close family. Although you know Berneta's fate from the beginning, the memoir is a celebration of a life rather than a sad reflection on what could have been.
I listened to the unabridged audio edition (Recorded Books, 4 h, 36 min) read by Tom Stechschulte. Stechschulte is a veteran narrator who on many levels should have been a good match for Doig's memoir. Unfortunately, his steady intonations had a tendency to drag, and his Scottish accent was disturbingly close to Irish. Although I would not hesitate to listen to another book read by Stechschulte, I do recommend reading Heart Earth in print. My full audio review will be published by AudioFile Magazine in the near future.
For more about Ivan Doig, visit his website, where you'll find information about his memoirs and novels, reading guides, and photographs of his mother.
Published by Mariner Books, 2006
Source: Review (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)