Another atmospheric Montana drama from Doig (Mountain Times, 1999, etc.), this one taking a side trip to Manhattan during the Harlem Renaissance as it portrays three strong, self-willed protagonists grappling with racial prejudice and their own emotions.
Susan Duff, last seen as a schoolgirl in Dancing at the Rascal Fair (1987), is now a 40-year-old singing teacher in Helena, contentedly alone years after her affair with wealthy, married Wes Williamson cost him the Montana gubernatorial race. Wes walks back into her life on a March evening in 1924 to ask if he can hire Susan to coach his chauffeur, Monty Rathbun. Monty has an extraordinary voice, but he’s also the son of an African-American soldier who later went to work for the Williamsons. There aren’t many colored folks in Montana, but there is a branch of the Ku Klux Klan, which decides that Susan isn’t just giving Monty singing lessons and threatens them both. Monty heads to Harlem, where he begins making a name with his “spirit songs” and acquires a Negro manager who sends him on the road. An attack by a KKK wannabe in Helena damages his voice and leaves him vulnerable enough to confess that he’s fallen in love with his coach; Susan, though again involved with Wes, realizes her feelings for Monty are also strong. Ushering his characters toward a climactic concert at Carnegie Hall, Doig does his usual splendid job of interweaving several time frames to bring alive American history and to chart the evolving relationships of thorny, independent people who love fiercely but never go easy on one another or themselves. His marvelously idiosyncratic sentences have the bite of mountain air and the springy rhythms of mountain folks’ speech, but they’re also more disciplined and less gnarled than in some past work. It all combines to create a compelling story that ends too soon—but given Doig’s career-long fondness for revisiting the intertwined families of Montana’s Two Medicine country, we can perhaps hope to see Susan, Wes, and Monty (or at least their relatives) again.
Fine work from a quintessentially American writer.