Thursday, May 30, 2024

Ivan Doig - Bucking the Sun

Having read Ivan Doig's beautiful memoir about growing up in rural Montana before I visited that state recently, I was keen to read one of his novels. Unsurprisingly it turned out to be very easy to find Doig's books in Montana's second hand bookshops. He remains, after all, one of the state's most celebrated writers. His books are often set around key moments in Montana's history, and tell stories imbued with historical accuracy.

Bucking the Sun is one of a series of books by Doig set in the north of the state. It is focused on the extended Duff family, homesteaders who have struggled to earn a living from the dry prairie soil, and who are kicked off their land. A New Deal project to build the enormous Fort Peck Dam will flood their farm and the book opens with the government man giving the Duff patriarch the news. The Duffs become New Deal workers on the huge project, which, by coincidence is managed by their son, a leading dam architect. If this conincidence is a little to unbelievable for the reader, it is worth suspending disbelief at this point, as the novel has a lot to offer, despite the contrived set up.

The book opens however with an aging, retired and right-wing sheriff who is thinking back on his career in a old people's home. One unsolved case still bugs him, a case in which two naked bodies were found in a car at the bottom of the Fort Peck resivoir. These entangled lovers were both Duffs, but as the opening chapter concludes, neither was married to the other.

The novel builds up to a climax were the identities of the two Duffs is finally revealed. As the family works on the dam, encouraged and helped along by the senior position of their eldest son, we see their lives, loves and laughs along the way. We also see the hardship of the New Deal work, and the difficulties of life in the West, as the Dam rises, so do the shanty towns around it - a new Wild West. 

Doig's put a lot of research into the book - there is a great deal here about what happened that seems historically accurate. But I found the other things telling. The way women get opportunities from the New Deal that give them a level of independence. The lives and work of sex workers at the time. Yet for me, most fascinating, is the radical history that links the struggles of factory workers in the First World War in Scotland, to the strikes and protests of 1930s America. I don't know what Doig's politics were, but the sympathy here with strikers, underdogs, protesters, sabetours and Communists are apparent. His knowledge of politics is enough to include passing reference to Trotskyists, that will please other leftie readers like myself.

Ultimately the story here is in the telling. To a certain extent I was disappointed with the ending - in fact I wasn't really that interested. If Doig hadn't inserted chapters with the Sheriff's flashbacks, I would have forgotten all about the opening mystery. What I was really invested in was the thing that all the other characters were obsessed with - the building of Fort Peck Dam itself. In fact, I might try and see it, should I ever return.

Related Reviews

Doig - This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind

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