This House of Sky Background Notes

The making of a writer

In the last years of the 1960's when this country was going through convulsive self-questioning, I was as usual out of step. It was becoming clearer and clearer to me what I was in life. I was a relic.

Bessie Ringer, never without a pet

Berneta and Charlie Doig at their sheepherding camp in 1934

And the son of another relic. And the grandson of yet a third relic.

This clearheadedness came over me in a most unexpected place: graduate school. I was at the University of Washington working toward a doctorate in history and noticed that I seemed to have come out of a time warp that was surprisingly deep, given that not many years separated then and now. In my Montana upbringing, I had worked in a lambing shed, picked rock from grainfields, driven a power buckrake in haying time and a D-8 Cat pulling a harrow during summer fallowing and a grain truck at harvest, herded sheep, trailed sheep, cussed sheep—even dug a well by hand and whitewashed a barn—and now I didn't seem to be finding other people who had done any of that.

Then during one of those winters of discontent in graduate school, my father and my grandmother—my mother's mother—came to Seattle to live with my wife Carol and me for the sake of my father's health, in our losing struggle against his emphysema. In almost all instances, I had done only enough of each of those Montana ranch jobs to convince me I did not want to do it every day the rest of my life. But here was a pair of persons who had gone on doing those tasks, and many more, until they simply could not, any longer.

The sight of these two people of the past who had raised me—Bessie Ringer, ranch cook, diehard Montanan since her early twenties when she stepped off a train in Three Forks with an infant daughter and a jobless husband; and Charlie Doig, ranch hand and rancher, born on a sagebrush homestead in the Big Belt Mountains south of Helena—the daily sight of these two in our Seattle living room, with a shopping center out the window below, very much made me aware of the relic-hood of the three of us. In the strictest dictionary definition: "an object whose original cultural environment has disappeared."

Berneta and Charlie Doig at their sheepherding camp in 1934

Bessie Ringer, never without a pet

It has been nearly a quarter of a century now since I finally put a period to the 410th page of the manuscript built upon those musings. My hands still sweat as I see the points at which the years of carpentry on This House of Sky could have failed. Installments of the long work of getting Sky's words into print are in my diary, such as this entry from mid-January of 1975 after I'd spent half a day reworking the opening sentence of the manuscript and thought I had managed to improve it by maybe two words:

"It would be magnificent to do the entire book with this slow care, writing it all as highly charged as poetry—but will I ever find the time?"

And another diary note, this one from mid-July of 1975, seven full years after the genesis of this writing effort:

"I began to look back through the Montana book, and saw how poor some of it is. The raw material is good, and there can be more, but my writing so far doesn't click. Size of the job scares me, I suppose."

But the next morning I made myself pencil my way through the manuscript again, and the morning after that, and after enough of those grindstone mornings I thought the words were perking up a bit. By late 1977, after an editor named Carol Hill at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich expressed interest in the sample she had seen, I finished up the l00,000-word manuscript of This House of Sky.

Away to New York went the stack of typed pages, and then, about six weeks later on the l9th of January, 1978, as I was stepping onto the jogging track at my wife's college, Carol drove up to the gate, told me Carol Hill had phoned from Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, and I'd better scoot home and call her right back.

There is a diary entry of what happened next, and it begins:

"Mark this day with a white stone."

Carol Hill in her first few sentences about the manuscript had said over the telephone to me: "spectacular...beautiful...elegant...wonderful" and "beautiful" again.

Then her best words of all, the ones I really needed to hear:

"And we'll publish it this fall."

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