Donald McCaig, veteran who chronicled rural life and Civil War, dies at 78
By HARRISON SMITH | The Washington Post | Published: November 22, 2018
He trained Marines to shoot, taught philosophy to college students, and worked as a producer for Murray the K, the influential rock radio DJ. But after settling in to a lucrative copywriting position at a Madison Avenue ad agency, Donald McCaig grew restless — and decided to reinvent himself as a farmer and writer.
So in 1971, as the back-to-the-land movement pulled his friends toward communes in the countryside, he and his girlfriend acquired a 280-acre farm in the Allegheny Mountains of western Virginia. Their 19th-century cabin was unheated, unfenced and plumbing-free. By the end of their third lambing season, nearly half of their sheep had died.
When McCaig suggested buying a working dog to help with the flock, his girlfriend, Anne Ashley, asked him, "Where are you going to find one that types?"
Yet after shifting sheep duties to Ashley, whom he later married, and buying a puppy named Pip, McCaig's writing career began to take off. His dog served as the inspiration for "Nop's Trials" (1984), an acclaimed novel about a border collie, and led him to become an expert on sheepdog breeding and psychology. His interest in local history led him to write "Jacob's Ladder" (1998), a richly detailed Civil War novel set in Virginia. And he was selected by Margaret Mitchell's estate to write a sequel to "Gone With the Wind," published in 2007 as "Rhett Butler's People."
At the same time, McCaig established himself as one of America's leading chroniclers of the rural life, a master stylist whose understated prose — often featured in the NPR program "All Things Considered" — captured his pained search for a lost herd of sheep or the simple pleasures of boiling water and mending fences.
"I tried mouth to mouth," he said in one 1994 "All Things Considered" segment about a stillborn puppy. "Put its wee snout in my mouth and blew so gently, but I knew it was no use. Probably, it had been strangled on its own umbilical cord. I put the dead puppy in the fire, taking care not to notice anything about it, neither its size or sex or markings. There are things I do not wish to know."
McCaig was 78 when he died Nov. 11 at his home in Highland County, Virginia, near the town of Williamsville. The cause was chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and heart disease, said his wife, Anne McCaig, who became a noted expert on Rambouillet sheep just as McCaig became an expert on the dogs who watch over them.
Writing under various pseudonyms as well as his own name, McCaig penned a book of poetry, "Last Poems" (1975); crime thrillers such as "The Man Who Made the Devil Glad" (1986); book reviews and other articles for The Washington Post; and an essay collection, "An American Homeplace" (1992), that mixed history and humor in its accounts of sheep dogs, daily chores and — on rare occasions — himself.
"I am built funny," he observed in one typically self-deprecating essay, "The General's Suit." "Picture Mark Twain's head on Ichabod Crane's body. Now hold your mental picture to the light and crumple it. That's the idea."
McCaig was born into a Scots-American family in Butte, Montana, on May 1, 1940. His father was an executive with a power company, and his mother was a shop owner who took in stray dogs, according to a profile in People magazine.
He served two years in the Marines before graduating from Montana State College, now Montana State University, in 1963. After teaching philosophy at Wayne State University in Detroit and the University of Waterloo in Ontario, he entered the ad business, writing copy for corporate clients such as Chrysler by day while developing a second life as a countercultural antiwar activist and poet.
McCaig said he and his wife were driving through Virginia, sleeping in a camper mounted on their pickup truck, when they came across the Williamsville cabin and decided to move in. They bought sheep because they believed — incorrectly — that the lambs would keep the grass trimmed.
His literary breakout, "Nop's Trials," featured a border collie who is kidnapped and sold to a pharmaceutical company for medical experiments. In the vein of Richard Adams' "Watership Down," the novel anthropomorphized its animal protagonists, who spoke in formal, Elizabethan-style sentences, bragging about their canine exploits and putting down their rivals. ("Thy life is a bore, tied up far from freedom and thou art a bore too, with thy rage and no real work to do.")
McCaig later wrote a sequel, "Nop's Hope" (1994), and featured dogs in nonfiction works such as "Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men" (1991), about his search for a new border collie in Scotland, and "Mr. and Mrs. Dog" (2013), about training two pups, Luke and June, for the World Sheepdog Trials in Wales.
In the early 1990s, McCaig was examining county records when he uncovered an "evocative court case," as he put it, in which a couple was convicted of harboring a runaway slave belonging to a nearby plantation owner. The case provided the seed of a plot that McCaig spent six years developing into a sprawling, 525-page novel, "Jacob's Ladder," that traced the history of the war through the recollections of a former slave in the 1930s.
Grounded in historical fact, the novel chronicled engagements such as the Battle of Spotsylvania in exacting detail, leading a reviewer for Publisher's Weekly to liken the book to a collaboration between Civil War historian Shelby Foote and Mitchell, author of "Gone With the Wind." It won the American Library Association's top honor for military fiction and also received the Michael Shaara Award, a top honor for Civil War fiction. A reviewer with the Virginia Quarterly Review called it "the finest novel about the Civil War ever written."
McCaig won a second Shaara Award for his 2007 novel "Canaan," a sequel that tied together such disparate events as Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, the invention of root beer and the Battle of Little Big Horn.
That same year, he published "Rhett Butler's People," which told the story of "Gone With the Wind" from the perspective of Butler, the Charleston blockade runner who marries heroine Scarlett O'Hara. The book marked the second official sequel to Mitchell's 1936 novel, which was followed in 1991 by "Scarlett," a best-selling but critically derided follow-up by Alexandra Ripley. Novelist Pat Conroy had been slated to write a third "Gone With the Wind" book before dropping out of the project amid concerns over artistic independence.
McCaig, who said he had not read Mitchell's novel before taking on the sequel, told the New York Times he accepted the commission out of "six parts hubris and four parts poverty."
Covering the period from Butler's childhood to the Reconstruction, his book recast Butler as a sympathetic hero, a gentleman who shoots his African-American friend rather than see him die at the hands of a lynch mob.
"McCaig pierces the mystery in which Mitchell shrouded Rhett Butler," reviewer Stephen Carter wrote in the Times. "He gives Rhett a life. We begin to understand where he came from, and why he was the way he was and did the things he did . . . By stripping away the veneer, McCaig transforms Rhett into a version of the angst-ridden, on-the-make, love-struck antihero of modern fiction."
McCaig, who is survived by his wife of Highland County, returned to "Gone With the Wind" in 2014 with "Ruth's Journey," an authorized prequel centered on the house servant character known as Mammy. In recent years, he also continued to tend to his dogs and his farm. Only rarely, he said, was he distracted from his animals — as when "Nop's Trials" was acquired by his publisher and optioned for a movie, in what his agent called a six-figure sale.
"I don't know what I'm going to do with the money," McCaig told The Post in 1984. "Put it in the bank, I guess. The sum total of the movie sale was that Anne and I couldn't sleep the night we found out about it, and I forgot to milk the cow. Money's fine, but I didn't feel very good about myself, forgetting the cow."
The Washington Post's Matt Schudel contributed to this report.