28 March 2011

Review: Heart Earth by Ivan Doig

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.

Heart Earth at Powell's
Heart Earth at Book Depository
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Published by Mariner Books, 2006
ISBN-13: 9780156031080
YTD: 32
Source: Review (see review policy)
Rating: B
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)


Sandy Nawrot 3/28/11, 8:12 AM  

I've always thought that the idea of finding letters and opening a window to the past is so alluring. (Hmmm...I wonder what our grandkids will have left from us? Blog posts?) As far as the narrator (I can't ever spell his name correctly!) I love him, but have only heard him in mystery thriller audios. He's not really a gentle reader.

Martha@Hey, I want to read that 3/28/11, 10:41 AM  

I've read and loved Doig fiction but haven't read his non-fiction yet. Your review reminds me to add this one to my list. He really does have a wonderful writing style.

Zibilee 3/28/11, 10:43 AM  

I tried to read another of Doig's books, but had a hard time with it and ended up putting it aside. It wasn't an issue of bad writing, just an issue of the story being a little inaccessible to me. Part of it had to do with the fact that it was the second book in a series, and I hadn't read that one. This one actually sounds more to my liking. Great review!

Pam (@iwriteinbooks) 3/28/11, 1:54 PM  

My grandpa just found all of his old (numbered!) letters to and from his parents when he was a young navy guy, living on a boat in Japan for two years. I REALLY want to write a book with them. I love when letters are the inspiration(s) for great books. Thanks for the review!

bermudaonion 3/28/11, 1:57 PM  

Wow, I can only imagine what a gift those letters were to him!

Robin M 3/28/11, 3:34 PM  

Sounds interesting. I'll have to check it out. I have a surprise for you on my blog!

Unknown 3/28/11, 4:51 PM  

Sounds like a very interesting memoir. I couldn't imagine receiving letters like that, what a precious gift.

Tribute Books 3/29/11, 11:18 AM  

Very interesting plot line!

Jenners 3/29/11, 9:02 PM  

Ivan Doig is big in my family because of the Montana connection so I'll have to see if my brother already has this. Otherwise I think I'll have to get it for him!

Margot 3/31/11, 1:13 PM  

I love the writing of Ivan Doig but I'm not familiar with this one or his memoir. I'll have to check the library. It sounds very good.

Swapna 4/2/11, 3:51 PM  

This sounds like a really interesting book, though I may take your advice and choose print over audio. Thanks for the review!

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