English Creek Background Notes
the piece of the world I admire most
Am I Jick? People have asked me a thousand times, whether the 14-year-old narrator of English Creek, in his pivotal summer of 1939, is my literary alter ego. No, not by a long shot, as Jick McCaskill himself would put it. But his homeland, the Two Medicine country of Montana and of my trilogy by that name, for an important time was mine.
English Creek and its valley are actually the Dupuyer Creek area of northern Montana, beneath the skyline of the Rocky Mountain Front. It's the region where I lived during high school and was a ranch hand and farm worker for several summers, the "Facing North" country in my memoir, This House of Sky, and it is big and hard and glorious—the piece of the world I admire most. It's a country of margin, of America changing, ascending from one geography to another, and of the sensation Isak Dinesen caught in Out of Africa: "In the highlands you woke up in the morning and thought: Here I am, where I ought to be."
Looking back on English Creek, the first of my fiction to be set in Montana, I see that it shares with This House of Sky an emphasis on landscape and weather and their effects on people's lives. In both books (all right, in all my books) I was trying to write about the grit of an America which even yet half-exists in the mountains-and-plains West: ranching, haying, fire-fighting, the Forest Service itself, all have their own techniques and lingo which make them vivid. What I deliberately made different from This House of Sky was the voice of this book—the narrative not as densely poetic as Sky's. Instead, I tried for a kind of idiomatic eloquence, a western cadence ruffled by turns of phrase. Jick, the narrator, is a man of today looking back on 1939, which gave him the angle of viewpoint I needed to hang the storyline on, and he has the love of sayings and stories which animates a lot of otherwise taciturn westerners. I remember, as I worked on the book, how Jick's voice, built as it was from my decades of file cards and notebook of dialogue and phrasing, excited me so much I hated to admit it, for fear of jinx. But that voice of his, from the opening line when he tells us "That month of June swam into the Two Medicine country," felt true to the time and country, and came more easily than the style of any of my books before or since.