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Bucking the Sun

Bucking the Sun

5.0 2
by Ivan Doig

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Bucking the Sun is the story of the Duff family, homesteaders driven from the Montana bottomland to work on one of the New Deal’s most audacious projects—the damming of the Missouri River.

Through the story of each family member—a wrathful father, a mettlesome mother, and three very different sons, and the memorable women they marry—


Bucking the Sun is the story of the Duff family, homesteaders driven from the Montana bottomland to work on one of the New Deal’s most audacious projects—the damming of the Missouri River.

Through the story of each family member—a wrathful father, a mettlesome mother, and three very different sons, and the memorable women they marry—Doig conveys a sense of time and place that is at once epic in scope and rich in detail.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
David Laskin The Washington Post Bucking the Sun is one of the books that takes you over as you read it, invading your daydreams, lodging its cadences in your brain, summoning you back to the page.

E. Annie Proulx author of Accordion Crimes and The Shipping News Ivan Doig is one of the best we've got — a muscular and exceedingly good writer who understands our hunger for stories.

Chicago Sun-Times Doig now has to be considered the premier writer of the American West.

Entertainment Weekly Bucking the Sun...derives its narrative energy from as tangled a web of familial and psychosexual rivalries as one is apt to encounter this side of Hamlet or The Brothers Karamazov.

John Harvey San Francisco Chronicle Doig has achieved his most adroit blend of fact and fancy in what is perhaps his best book since This House of Sky. What sets Doig apart from others who have farmed the same terrain is the deft way he handles the fruits of his research; fact and anecdote are woven into the text with a light and often humorous touch.

Maud Casey

Here's a book for ardent fans of big, strapping American novels told in muscled prose -- but not, perhaps, a book for the rest of us. Ivan Doig's fifth novel, like his earlier work, deals largely with man's struggle against nature -- in this case, the building of the monumental Fort Peck Dam (a WPA project) over the Missouri River in the 1930s. We're quickly introduced to randy family of men called the Duffs and their "bridge widows" in the dam town of Wheeler, Montana. There's fillmaster Owen, the encumbered older brother, Darius, a Marxist uncle on the lam, a taxidancer named Proxy who could dance "the dimes out of the joes," and Rosellen, a struggling writer, to name but a few. Fort Peck Dam was a mix of engineering triumphs and ig, dramatic mud slides, and so it is with the Duffs -- childbirth, familial love and strife, near-death experiences with fire and water, and a mysterious, lusty affair at the narrative's core.

The problem is that it's sometimes hard to tell these characters apart. Each uses expressions like "Christ in his nighty" and "fiddlesticks." This wouldn't be so bad except that they have similar, snappy responses, even in the height of crisis. This prose has a tendency to swagger, sometimes even donning cowboy boots as it struts its way into the Montana sunset. Early on, "Rosellen was having the chicken and dumplings, Kate the ham steak, and winter was having Fort Peck for supper." And sometimes Doig's writing stumbles or just plain falls down in those big boots: "She studied him like a skeptic buying wild honey in molasses country." Other times, Doig simply seems lazy: "Charlene was madder than a wet hen or any other comparison that could be drawn."

The really interesting story here concerns the construction of the dam and its impact on the Missouri River and the surrounding landscape. Doig is thorough. He knows his history and provides striking images of ancient buffalo skulls popping up in the dam water, the Duffs' Scottish ancestors lashing themselves to a ship to keep from falling into stormy waters, and FDR's sad, shriveled legs as he delivered his speech at Fort Peck. But ultimately, it's slow going. If you were a Duff, it might put you "in a mood a crocodile would have spat at." -- Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
As in Doig's Montana trilogy (Dancing at the Rascal Fair, etc.), here American history forms the vivid backdrop for a flinty family drama. Once again, a group of hardheaded, Scotch-descended Montanans struggle with each other and with nature, this time during the building of the Fort Peck Dam from 1933 to 1938. Hugh Duff hasn't spoken to his eldest son, Owen, since the young man abandoned the family farm to study engineering. Owen is hired to oversee Fort Peck's earth fill just as his father learns that the dam will flood their fields. Hugh simmers, but his wife, Meg, and their twin sons, reckless Bruce and sensible Neil, are happy to get jobs on the New Deal project, though Neil asserts his independence by "bucking the sun" (driving into its head-on rays) for his after-hours trucking business. The brothers' wives-Owen's socially ambitious Charlene; her sister Rosellen, an aspiring writer married to Neil; and Bruce's terse, tough-minded Kate-increase the volatility of the Duff family mix of love and loyalty tempering profound differences of personality and belief. Among the other well-drawn characters is Hugh's Marxist brother Darious, a striking portrait of political extremism. Doig's trademark, minutely detailed evocations of physical labor are present here, as is a bravura description of a disastrous collapse of the unfinished dam. The novel is more plot-heavy than Doig's previous work: the mysterious deaths that bookend the main story are contrived, and the narrative often whipsaws among various Duffs. Not quite as magical as English Creek, but much better than the sketchy Ride with Me, Mariah Montana, this is still vintage Doig.
Library Journal
Doig begins this saga with adultery and death, then moves backward to examine the causes. Just as the building of the mammoth Fort Peck Dam transforms the Montana countryside, it radically alters the lives of its Depression-era inhabitants. In particular, members of the Duff clan abandon subsistence farming and move to the construction boomtowns. There a father, three brothers, and their wives confront the task of building the largest earthen dam in the world, brave the dangers of such labor, and battle among themselves. Doig has published memoirs of his Montana youth (National Book Award finalist This House of Sky, LJ 9/15/78) and a novel trilogy set in the same area. His latest novel continues this regional emphasis, carefully constructing a semidocumentary frame for an intense family drama. This richly detailed narrative offers comedy, passion, and adventure. Recommended for public libraries.-Albert E. Wilhelm, Tennessee Technological Univ., Cookeville
David Laskin
"Bucking the Sun is one of those books that takes you over as you read it, invading your day dreams, lodging its cadences in your brain, sending you back to the page." -- The Washington Post
John Harvey
Doig has achieved his most adroit blend of fact and fancy in what is perhaps his best book since This House of Sky. What sets Doig apart from others who have farmed the same terrain is the deft way he handles the fruits of his research; fact and anecdote are woven into the text with a light and often humorous touch.
San Francisco Chronicle
Kirkus Reviews
The sprawling tale that Doig, author of the Montana trilogy (English Creek, 1984; Dancing at the Rascal Fair, 1987; and Ride with Me, Moriah Montana, 1990), has been working on for years.

Doig grew up in eastern Montana during the Depression, when the Roosevelt Administration built the world's largest earthen dam high on the Missouri River, at Fort Peck. After impressive quantities of research, he has fashioned a Scotch-American family named Duff to tell the dam's story. There are Hugh and Meg, who will be displaced from their hardscrabble farm by the dam's water; their sons Owen, Bruce, and Neil, whose careers and marriages will be shaped by the dam; and the contentious women the sons marry: Charlene, Kate, and especially Rosellen, a frustrated writer who, along with Owen, forms the novel's consciousness. Older brother Owen schools himself as a civil engineer and writes a thesis that lands him the job of chief fill officer even though he's still in his 20s.Through Owen the reader gains a sense of what a massive undertaking the five-year project was, akin to an American great pyramid. The dam is the largest character here, sharing the drama with the ten thousand men and women the project employed; Owen and Rosellen are merely their admirable symbols. Owen becomes obsessed with the river's whims, the treacherousness of steel and gravel and shale, and he loses contact with his wife, Charlene. He falls for Rosellen then—but only briefly, for it is the dam, the great endeavor of his life, that he really loves.

The Duffs are believable but not memorable; Steinbeck this writer is not. Doig's real achievement is to chronicle—with empathy and precise, lyrical authority, down to the last load of gravel hauled in a sturdy Ford truck—the magnificent Fort Peck project and the desperate times out of which it arose.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Part One



Selfmade men always do a lopsided job of it, and the sheriff had come out conspicuously short on the capacity to sympathize with anyone but himself. No doubt ears still were burning at the Fort Peck end of the telephone connection; he'd had to tell that overgrown sap of an undersheriff he didn't give a good goddamn what the night foreman said about dangerous, get the thing fished out of the river if it meant using every last piece of equipment at the dam site. This was what he was up against all the time, the sheriff commiserated with himself during the drive from Glasgow now, toward dawn. People never behaving one bit better than they could get away with.

Die of eyelids, you could on this monotonous stretch of highway down to the dam, he reminded himself, and cranked open the window for night air to help keep him awake. He'd been up until all hours, sheriffing the town of Glasgow through the boisterous end of another week, and had barely hit bed when the telephone jangled. Catch up on sleep, the stupid saying went, but in five years as sheriff he had yet to see any evidence that the world worked that way, ever made it up to you for postponement of shuteye and all the other —

The cat-yellow shapes of bulldozers sprang huge into his headlights, causing him to blink and brake hard as he steered onto the approach to the dam. Past the bulks of earthmoving equipment parked for the night, on the rail spur stood a waiting parade of even more mammoth silhouettes, flatcars loaded high with boulders to be tumbled into place on the dam face. Then, like a dike as told by a massive liar, Fort Peck Dam itself.

The sheriff hated the sight of the ungodly pyramid of raw dirt that the dambuilders were piling across the throat of the Missouri River. He hated Franklin Delano Roosevelt for this project and its swarm of construction towns, if that's what you wanted to call such collections of shacks, and the whole shovelhead bunch down here who had to cut loose like rangutangs every Saturday night. Damn this New Deal crap. Wasn't there any better way to run a country than to make jobs out of thin air, handing out wage money like it was cigarette papers? The sheriff hated having to call himself a Democrat, though he knew that a person couldn't even get elected to town idiot these days without that tag.

By now he was nearing the floodlights, could see the workbarge with its crane arm poised and the cluster of men at the truck ramp where it must have happened. He crept the patrol car along the crest of the dam and when he parked made it a point not only to leave the car in gear but set the emergency brake, hard as he could yank it. Before heading down to the group at the water's edge, though, the sheriff stopped and took a long look east across the river, past last month's trouble here, to the bankside promontories of bluffs and badland ravines emerging in dawn outline like scissored shadows.

One thing Sheriff Carl Kinnick loved was his jurisdiction, his piece of the earth to tend justice on. The upper Missouri River country, or anyway the seventy-five-mile series of bends of the river that Valley County extended north from, like a castle footed into a seacoast. Kinnick's own climb up through life began beside this river, familyless boy mucking out barns and calcimining chickenhouses, working up to the haying jobs, the alfalfa-seed harvest jobs, up and up, squirreling every loose cent away until he had enough to make his start in Glasgow, the county seat. After that there was no stopping him, of course, but he'd always felt — still did feel — somehow that first lift into career, into politics (or as he preferred to think of it, law enforcement) had come from the spell of the river. As far as Carl Kinnick was concerned, the Missouri with its broad fast flow and its royal-green cottonwood groves and the deep bottomland that made the best farming in eastern Montana, the Missouri had been next thing to perfect the way it was. Until this Fort Peck project. Until this giant federal dike to put people to work with the excuse (benefit, the Roosevelters were always calling it) of stopping floods in the states downriver all the way to St. Louis. The sheriff believed it would be fitting justice if everything and everybody downriver dried up and blew away.

Duty. He picked his way from boulder to boulder down the riprap face of the dam to the cluster of men waiting for him. He nodded only to the night foreman. The owl-shift workers all had turned to watch him arrive, the bibs of their overalls fencing him in. The sheriff was the shortest by half a head in any group, and how he felt about that can be guessed.

Singling out his undersheriff, without preamble he asked what was delaying matters.

"We've about got it up, Carl, honest. The diver had a hell of a time with it in the dark down there."

The sheriff bit back an impulse to tell the big scissorbill that excuses are like buttholes, everybody's got one. Instead he folded his arms and rocked back and forth on the small heels of his boots while watching the crane at work. Its cable into the water was being reeled in by the operator on the barge, the steel strand making a steady low hum through the intricate pulleys of the boom arm, until suddenly — a lot quicker than the sheriff expected, actually — a wallowing sound came and then the splash of water falling away as the surface was broken upward by a Ford truck.

I've seen some lulus since I got myself elected to this badge, Kinnick thought as the vehicle dangled from the cable hooked around its front axle, water pouring from the wide cab and box as if a metal trough had been yanked straight up by one end. But I never had to put up with them wrecking themselves on the bottom of the river before.

For a moment he hoped the Ford's cab would be empty, then canceled that at the prospect of having to drag this river, lake, whatever this stretch of the Missouri amounted to anymore, for a body. Maybe, just maybe there hadn't even been anybody in the truck when the thing rolled down the ramp and plunged into the water about an hour after midnight. The section watchman swore he hadn't heard a motor running, only the splash; then when he raced over, he'd seen only what appeared to him in the lack of light to be the cab and boxboards of a truck going under. Maybe this was only a case of a poorly parked rig that coasted loose somehow. But if there wasn't some brand of human misbehavior involved in a truck visiting the bottom of the Missouri on a Saturday night at Fort Peck, Sheriff Kinnick was going to be plentifully surprised.

The Ford ton-and-a-half twisted slowly in the air like cargo coming ashore. When the crane operator lowered the load as far up the face of the dam as the boom arm would reach, the men clambered to it and the undersheriff, at Kinnick's impatient nod, wrenched the driver's-side door open.

The body question was settled instantly. Plural.

The woman lay stretched behind the steering wheel but turned sideways, facing down toward where the man had slid lengthwise off the seat, headfirst under the dashboard. Both were naked.

Without taking his eyes off the dead pair, the sheriff put out an arm and, even though he knew the gesture was useless, waved back the gawking damworkers behind him. This was the moment he always searched for in a case. The instant of discovery. Any witness's first view of what had happened, right there was where you wanted to start. Now that he himself was essentially the first onto the scene of whatever this was, though, the sheriff was more than a bit uncomfortable at the lack of exactitude here. An entire circus of circumstance, here before his eyes, yet somehow not as substantial as he would have liked. As if the bunch behind him with their necks out like an ostrich farm were sopping up, siphoning away what ought to be clearer to him than it was proving to be.

Kinnick got a grip on himself and tried to fix in mind every detail of how the couple lay in the truck cab, although the woman's bare white hip, the whole pale line of her body and the half-hidden side of her face, kept dominating his attention. No blood, no wounds, at least. He forced himself to balance on the running board and stick his head and shoulders just enough into the cab to reach across the woman to the gearshift. It proved to be in neutral, which made him uneasy; with these two people occupied with each other as they'd been, how the hell had something like that happened? He knew what he was going to find next, when he tried the emergency brake lever and it of course didn't hold at all; there wasn't a truck in Montana with any wear on it that didn't have the emergency brake burned out. Which made the damned gearshift situation even more —

A cloud of colors at the corner of his right eye startled him, making him jerk his head that direction. The wet wads of their clothing, plastered to the truck's rear window. The lighter wads must be their underwear.

"You know them or don't you?" the sheriff demanded over his shoulder, annoyed that he had to drag it out of the undersheriff.

Even then the undersheriff didn't say the names of the drowned two until Kinnick backed out of the cab and wheeled on him with a hot stare. The last name, Duff, the sheriff recognized from some trouble report or another — quite a family of them on the dam crew, a tribe of brothers and their wives, and a father, was it, into the bargain? — but the first names meant nothing to him. That was what an undersheriff was for.

Thankful isn't the word in circumstances such as this, but Kinnick at least felt relieved that the undersheriff had named them off as a couple and that these river deaths shaped up as an accident, pure and plain. Terrible thing, but people were asking for it with behavior of the kind these two were up to out here in the middle of the —

The undersheriff still was staring into the truck, rubbing a corner of his mouth with a fist the size of a sledgehammer head, as if trying to make up his mind about something. The damworkers were overly quiet, too.

"What's the matter now?" Kinnick burst out. The little sheriff prided himself on always staying a few steps ahead in the mental department, but somehow he wasn't up with the expressions on all the rest of the men around the truck. What's got them spooked? It wasn't as if this dam had never killed anybody before. Naked and dead out in public wasn't good, nobody could say that. But you'd think it would take more than that to scandalize damworkers. Funny for a husband and wife to be out here going at it in a truck when they had a home of any kind, that was true. But Saturday night and all, who knew what these Fort Peckers were apt to get up to. So what could be out of kilter, if this couple was — "They're married people, right? You said their names are both Duff."

The undersheriff hesitated. He hated dealing with this fierce doll of a man his job depended on.

"That's the thing about this, Carl," the undersheriff said at last. "Married, you bet. Only not to each other."

Copyright © 1996 by Ivan Doig.

What People are Saying About This

E. Annie Proulx
Ivan Doig is one of the best we've got—a muscular and exceedingly good writer who understands our hunger for stories.
—(E. Annie Proulx, author of Accordion Crimes and The Shipping News)

Meet the Author

Ivan Doig (1939-2015) was a third-generation Montanan and the author of sixteen books, including the classic memoir This House of Sky and most recently Last Bus to Wisdom. He was a National Book Award finalist and received the Wallace Stegner Award, among many other honors. Doig lived in Seattle with his wife, Carol. Visit IvanDoig.com.

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Bucking the Sun 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Jericho27 More than 1 year ago
I read this book a few years ago, and LOVED it!! Now I am just wanting to get it on my Nook Color so I always have it with me! Being from around this area, it was a really interesting read!