Dancing at the Rascal Fair Discussion Points

  1. At the start of the book, Angus thinks back on his and Rob's decision to emigrate from Scotland and wonders what Rob's "deep reasons" were. What do you think? And how does Lucas serve as a symbol of the West's promise and perils?
  2. The novel takes place over 30 years and spans several generations. How does Doig convincingly allow so much time to pass and yet focus on specific events, moments and exchanges between characters with precision and effect? What narrative methods does he use to create a sweeping saga that is also a nuanced portrait of people and place?
  3. The numerous historical events woven into this fictional tale include the influenza epidemic, the establishment of America's national forests, and the First World War. Can fiction bring a milieu alive more vividly than "straight" history?
  4. Ivan Doig has described the way his characters speak on the page as "a poetry of the vernacular" and has said that he strives to craft the "poetry under the prose." Find examples of how Doig creates dialogue to show how Angus and Rob become more Americanized over the years.
  5. What does Angus's love of verse, and his habit of quoting it, say about his personality? What does he seem to seek by turning to poetry and song? What effect does Doig achieve by peppering the book with Scottish verse? What special significance lies in the lyrics of "Dancing at the Rascal Fair," which the author composed to serve as the book's title?
  6. Doig believes that "writers of caliber can ground their work in specific land and lingo and yet be writing of that larger country: life." Yet setting is anything but a passive backdrop in Doig's fiction. Does the grandeur of Montana dwarf the lives of the characters or make them seem more expansive and dramatic? How does the unpredictable Montana climate parallel the stormy relationships depicted in the book?
  7. Angus remarks that "the Atlantic was a child's teacup compared to the ocean that life could be." Discuss the water imagery throughout the book, from Rob and Angus's transatlantic voyage, to the droughts the homesteaders suffer, to Rob's eventual fate.
  8. Throughout the book, Rob and Angus worry over the "perils that sheep invite on themselves." Can a parallel be drawn between the sheep, with all their promise and vulnerability, and the homesteaders who tend them?
  9. Do you believe that Anna truly loved both Isaac and Angus, or was she simply sparing Angus's feelings when she told him she would know where to turn if her marriage went awry? Had Anna lived through the influenza epidemic, do you think it likely that she and Angus would have re-ignited their relationship?
  10. Angus calls his marriage to Adair a "truce." Discuss the ways in which Doig explores the interplay of obligation, compromise, loyalty and affection in their marriage. For which of these two victims of unrequited love do you feel the most sympathy? Considering Adair's knowledge that she is not Angus's true love and her admission that she is ill-suited for homesteading life, why does she stay so long in Montana? In the end, do you find Angus and Adair's relationship practical and companionable or tragic and sad?
  11. How does Doig develop Rob and Angus's lifelong friendship? Trace its arc over the decades. How realistically does Doig depict the eventual rift between them? What do you think caused the drastic change in Rob's personality toward the end of his life?
  12. In the final chapter, Angus reflects: "Hard ever to know, whether time is truly letting us see from the pattern of ourselves into those next to us." What does this novel say, finally, about the mysteries of human relationships and the human heart?

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