Ivan Doig Prairie Nocturne: A Novel

ISBN 13: 9780743201360

Prairie Nocturne: A Novel

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9780743201360: Prairie Nocturne: A Novel

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.

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About the Author:

Ivan Doig (1939-2015) was a third-generation Montanan and the author of sixteen books, including the classic memoir This House of Sky and most recently Last Bus to Wisdom. He was a National Book Award finalist and received the Wallace Stegner Award, among many other honors. Doig lived in Seattle with his wife, Carol. Visit IvanDoig.com.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One: Amended Star

1924

"The evening, the evening,

The evening brings all home."

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. Shoulders back, her tall frame straightening expectantly even though there was no one in the house to meet for the evening but herself, she shuffled sheet music into its rightful order, tallied the hours of lessons in the secondhand mercantile ledger she kept handy atop the piano, and cast an eye over the schedule of impending pupils, then the balky old doors of the music parlor were slid shut. Next a freshening of her face with a rinse of cold water; one adjusting glance into the mirror, never two; hairpins taken out, and her chestnut hair shaken down. Onward to her stovetop supper, which she raced through as though still making up for her father's interminable graces over expiring food. Now, with a pat to the kitchen and a cursory locking of doors and windows, she was ready to ascend.

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.

This night, however, no sooner was she upstairs than she whipped to a halt in front of the alcove of window, her gaze drawn down the hillside to the state capitol dome, resting as it did on the center of the government of Montana like a giant's copper helmet. The dome still was alight with the festoon of bulbs that had greeted 1924 three months ago, which seemed to her uncalled for.

"Blaze," Susan addressed the civic constellation in the coarse-ground Fife burr she was born to, "see if I care."

She gave a throaty chuckle at herself and wended her way toward her desk. Pausing to choose a lozenge from the cut-glass jar there, she tasted it thoughtfully with the tip of her tongue, then swirled it in her mouth as if it would clear away beginner lessons and quavery approximations of high C; poor Flossie, last pupil of the day and absolute farthest from a worthwhile voice. No recital there, she reflected, except what I'll hear from her mother.

Still caught in thought, Susan automatically cast a glance around to judge the state of her housekeeping up here and reached her usual conclusion that she needed the availability of these spacious hours beyond dark more than the place demanded housecleaning. The attic-like room extended the full length of the house -- loft quarters for a married pair of servants, this must have originally been -- and she treated the expanse like a rambler cottage perched above the formal quarters of downstairs. The rolltop desk, a divan, a Victrola, what had been her father's Morris chair and footstool, onyx-topped side tables, a blue-and-black knitted comforter on the sill seat of the strategically aimed gable window, swayback sets of bookshelves, a spinet piano, a typewriter sitting composedly on a rolling secretarial table, a highly unreliable new thing called a radio set standing on a sturdy side cabinet, the whopping Duff family Bible on a commemorative reading stand of its own, all populated what was in actual fact her bedroom.

This mob of comforts drew her up out of public day as if lifting her into a lifeboat, and Susan tallied the necessity of this each time, too. Liberal with the night, resourceful as she probably ever was going to be in what that Bible would have deemed her fortieth year under heaven, she held to the belief that she was most her reconstituted self in these upstairs hours, at this elevation where the minute hand did not count. The time of footlights and the song-led marches for the right of women to vote were tucked into the past as firmly as could be, and as to the tongues of the town down there beyond the base of the stairs, she could do nothing about those. But up here, what she could do was to get busy at life's amended version of Susan Duff. There were encouraging letters to be written to favorite former pupils. (Tonight's, which took lip-biting concentration, to the breathy young soprano whose recent lieder recital in Milwaukee had not found favor there; many a time Susan wished she could deal solely with the voices, shapes of sound standing free in the air, without the human wrappings.) This political city's newspapers to be devoured, Anaconda Copper's one for spite and the independent one for sustenance. Books in plenitude; currently she was trying to make her way through E. M. Forster and the murky doings in the Marabar Caves. Music, of course: her half-finished operetta Prairie Tide always awaited, always unnavigable; and the radio set sometimes brought in serenades from unimaginable distances and sometimes madly cackled out static; but the Victrola sang the songs of others perfectly on command, restorative in itself to a teacher of voice. Then too she still was secretary of the state chapter of the Over There Memorial Committee, which took her to a drafty meeting hall once a month and obliged her to see to official correspondence, clerical enough to cross the eyes, in between. Tonight, as always, she shifted workspots every so often, her tall solo figure suddenly on the move as if she were a living chess piece. Time did not lag here in her industrious garret; it was not permitted to.

When it was nearing midnight and she had just begun to salt away another day between diary covers, she faintly heard the turn of a key in the front door and then the rhythm of him coming up the stairs to her for the first time in four years.

"Susan? You might have changed the lock."

He arrived on the wings of that commanding smile. The very model of a modern genteel major, a line of hers teased somewhere back in that diary. The blue of his blood and the red silver of bayonet steel, those paradoxical flying colors by which he came through the war. Behind Wes, it was said, men would have charged Hell; in fact, men had.

Susan sat back hard in her chair at the desk, surprised no end to be confronted with him again after all this time. Even so she could not help but marvel at the presence with which Wes did most anything, as though the shadow under him were the thrust of a stage. Her emotions were more mixed about how little the years told on him. Poised there at the top of her stairs, wearing a fortune on his back -- or more aptly, on the swath of chest where General Pershing himself had pinned the highest medal -- as ever he looked ready to do a white-glove inspection. Civilian life, now that he was tailored to it again, was a continuation of duty by other means. Even his way of standing like that, the weight taken on his left leg to spare the right knee peppered by shrapnel at St. Mihiel, proclaimed the reliance that the world had wanted to place on him. Brave and wounded at the same time: the story of Wesley Williamson's life, as she was plentifully aware, on more than one kind of battlefield.

Voice training had unforeseen benefits. She thought she managed to sound in possession of herself -- or at least within her own custody -- as she spoke back to the immaculate invader:

"Evidently I saved you some shinnying, by not."

"Oh oh," Wes said, his smile dented but still there, "I guess I've been told."

He picked his way through the long room, interested as a museum-goer, to the perch nearest her, which happened to be the edge of her bed. "May I?"

You and your Williamson manners. In out of nowhere, walk uninvited into a woman's bedroom, then be solicitous about seating himself too near. Susan laughed to clear away her incredulity, and answered him in a tone that would have cut through bone:

"Sit yourself down, Wes, please do. I haven't had a good look at a family man in a while."

Wes ducked his head slightly in acknowledgment. One thing about Susan, she doesn't just go through the motions of being riled. At least she had not put the run on him, quite yet. He settled to the very outside of the bed, accommodating his leg, and wordlessly looked over at her before trying to make his case. The woman there just beyond reach had an enlarged sense of justice, which had been one of the first passions that drew them together. He saw that their years apart had deepened the lines of her, accented the lean longstroke features that would never amount to outright beauty, quite, but summed up as an august well-carved attractiveness; a face that had always had character enough for the capacity of a stage. The old disturbance Susan caused in him gathered at the base of his throat as he sat there reviewing her. That laugh of hers which started somewhere down in the Scotch gravel of her family footing, then her voice finding its way to the heaven-given lilt: Lord, how he missed that. The snip and snap of talk with her, all the times of concocting their political mustard plasters for the world. The linear extra helping of her, the long-boned grace that had added so to their lovemaking. Topping it all, her cinnamon eyes that could put you in your place and make you like it. Everything was there to be missed, as he contemplated Susan across the frozen distance between bed and desk.

"Lost, are you?" she inquired. "I thought this was still your New York time of year."

"You make me sound like a migratory bird."

"If you show the feather..."

"Didn't I hear you've been to France again yourself?"

"Committee doings. That was two years ago."

"Four take away two," he mused as if maintaining his own special calendar of their time apart. "Halfway back to when the earth ...

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