A classical voice teacher isolated on the plains during the Depression tries to teach a black rodeo performer with one lung how to sing, drawing the wrath of the Ku Klux Klan. Not the stuff of your average novel, but then Ivan Doig does not write average novels. In Prairie Nocturne, with his usual idiosyncrasy, he brings back several characters from his highly applauded Montana Trilogy in a coda that opens up the 20th century and its achingly modern concerns.
Susan Duff, the endearing singing schoolgirl from Dancing at the Rascal Fair, reappears here as a mature, professionally talented freethinker. She is persuaded by her former lover, Wes, to take Monty of the gorgeous voice under her wing. In the process, she and Wes get back together again, and a whole new relationship develops between teacher and student as well.
Big Sky Country never had a better booster than Doig. Although the action swings to New York City for a while, the Two-Medicine territory he portrays so lovingly is not short-changed. Neither is Doig's facility with words; his writer's gait bucks a bit, but he keeps a sure hand on the reins. Although it would add to the reader's enjoyment and understanding to have read the author's earlier books, Prairie Nocturne stands amply on its own, dealing with Doig concerns in characteristic Doig fashion. As usual in his books, human beings who just barely fit into the jigsaw puzzles of each other's worlds form the heart of the story. Even more typical are the unexpected perfect phrasings that litter his prose. One might quibble with certain plot turns, or with his portrayal of a career-conscious singer who relies so heavily on old songs his mother taught him. Still, any author who can remark on "the sort of person who would be fun on a picnic, if it was a short enough picnic," and "the ancient impatience of water," and "Montana's long-legged miles" deserves a wide and loyal readership.
Maude McDaniel writes from Cumberland, Maryland.