Bucking the Sun

A Novel

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About The Book

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.

Excerpt

Chapter 1

Part One

THE SHERIFF

1938


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.

Reading Group Guide

Reading Guide for Bucking the Sun by Ivan Doig
About the book It is 1938. A Ford truck is pulled from the Missouri River at Fort Peck Dam. Two unnamed Duffs are claimed by the river, and we follow the thread of their fate, eager to learn who, and why, as the clan pushes on against the circumstances. Thus begins Bucking the Sun, a wonderfully suspenseful novel about the Depression era when FDR was president and the New Deal prevailed.
Bucking the Sun is a fascinating chronicle of the explosion of construction towns, the building of the mammoth Fort Peck Dam and the displaced Duff family, whose farm is lost and whose legacy is to survive a changing America, amid their tangled love affairs and clashing politics.
Discussion points
  1. While based on the actual building of the Fort Peck Dam, Bucking the Sun is a work of fiction. At what point does the novel depart from fact to imagination? What liberties does Doig take that an author of non-fiction could not?
  2. Describe the structure of Bucking the Sun. Discuss Doig's literary voice, as well as his use of flashback. What is the author's purpose in these italic "back stories"?
  3. How do the shantytown settings and the emerging Fort Peck Dam summon the themes in Bucking the Sun?
  4. Doig has populated his novel equally with female and male characters -- Meg and Hugh, Bruce and Kate, Rosellen and Neil, Owen and Charlene, Proxy and Darius. How does Bucking the Sun illuminate the roles of women and men during the 1930s?
  5. Betrayals threaten to tear the Duff family apart -- instances of brother against brother and sister against sister, spouse against spouse, generation against generation. Are these betrayals born of belief, immorality, circumstance, or simply boredom? Is the author using the multiple tensions as a device to mask the ultimate betrayal that leads to the deaths in the truck, or expressing a view of these characters and their times? What feelings does Doig leave you with about families and family loyalty?
  6. Reviewers of Doig's previous books have frequently commented that the women are strongly drawn personalities. Is this true of Bucking the Sun? Which woman do you consider the most strongly drawn?
  7. Although the major characters are related, Doig takes care to make each a distinct personality. Consider examples of one way he does this: by giving each one unique turns of phrase.
  8. Darius and Owen argue often about Darius's politics. How are their separate ideologies embodied in their actions? How do Darius's convictions ultimately affect the outcome of the story? How do Owen's?
  9. How is Carl Kinnick important to the novel? As a character? As a voice? As a plot device? Is there any significance to the fact that he is a small man?
  10. Doig writes of Kinnick, "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?" How do Kinnick's sympathies correlate with the current debate over big government vs. less government?
  11. Throughout the story, the characters are thrown into conflict with powerful natural forces. Doig twice describes Neil as "buck(ing) the sun" when he drives his truck. What is the meaning of this phrase? What greater significance does it gather over the course of the novel?
  12. At the end of the novel, we discover that two of the characters are having an affair, and thus assume that they are the two Duffs pulled from the truck. However, the case proves to be not that simple. Why do you think Doig chose the particular two who die in the truck? Besides surprising readers, what might be Doig's larger purpose?

About the author
The grandson of homesteaders and the son of a ranch hand and a ranch cook, Ivan Doig was born in Montana in 1939. He grew up along the Rocky Mountain Front that has inspired much of his writing, making it into his own "Western Yoknapatawpha," according to critics. His first book, the highly acclaimed memoir This House of Sky (1978), was a finalist for the National Book Award, and his eight books since then have received numerous prizes.
A former ranch hand and a newspaperman, Doig is a graduate of Northwestern University where he received a B.S. and a M.S. in journalism. He holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Washington and honorary doctorates in literature from Montana State University and Lewis and Clark College. In the century's-end San Francisco Chronicle polls to name the best Western novels and works of non-fiction, Doig is the only living writer with books in the top dozen on both lists: English Creek in fiction and This House of Sky in non-fiction. He lives in Seattle with his wife Carol, who has taught the literature of the American West.
Recommended Reading
The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
Penguin, 1992

The Hungry Years: America in an Age of Crisis, 1929-1939, T.H. Watkins
Holt, 1999

"Hey Sailor, What Ship?" short story in Tell me a Riddle, Tillie Olsen
Delta, 1971

The American West as Living Space, Wallace Stegner
University of Michigan Press, 1987

The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River, Richard White
Hill and Wang, 1996

"Going to Fort Peck" chapter in All But the Waltz, Mary Clearman Blew
Penguin, 1992

Cadillac Desert, Marc Reisner
Penguin, 1993

Fort Peck photo essay in first issue of LIFE Magazine
Nov. 23, 1936

Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity and the Growth of the American West,
Donald Worster
Oxford University Press, 1992

About 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.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (May 13, 1997)
  • Length: 416 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780684831497

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Raves and Reviews

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.

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