Bucking the Sun by Ivan Doig

TitleBucking the Sun
AuthorIvan Doig
FinishedJune 22, 2022
My Rating★★★★
View/Purchase (Non affiliate)Amazon

In 1938 a Ford truck is hauled from the bottom of the Missouri River; two bodies – a man and a woman – are found inside the truck. Interestingly enough, they are Duffs but are not husband and wife. We aren’t told who they are; as we wind our way through the novel about the Hugh and Meg Duff’s extended family during the building of the Fort Peck Damn in eastern Montana we think about the interaction of the men and women in the family wondering who were in a tryst that night.

The Duffs are close knit, but definitely not warm. “Sometimes it’s a pretty close call .. whether enough of us are speaking to the rest of us to get the salt and pepper passed.” [Loc 894]. They are a clan; fractious within, but protective of one another when it comes to anyone outside the family. Hugh and Meg Duff are forced off their farm by the dam; within a few years it will be under water. Their three sons and their wives (and later Hugh’s brother Darius) live in the shanty town Wheeler all directly or indirectly supporting the dam construction. We see the building of the dam from Owen’s engineering; from under water with one brother and high up on the railroad trestle with another. 

Through the setting of the huge Federal relief project we see slices of the Great Depression: people forced out of their old ways of life but many finding a living through the FDR’s various enormous projects. We also see how and why the Communists gain a small foothold through their efforts to improve the lot of common people. This isn’t propaganda; it’s a theme that ran through the Great Depression; as millions became destitute pressures for change came from many places.

This is similar to my favorite Ivan Doig book “Dancing at the Rascal Fair” in that we see the building of community in Montana through the lens of family conflicts. As we learn about sheepherding in Rascal Fair, we learn about building earthen dams in the “Bucking the Sun” where progress needs to be made as long as winter holds off.

“The next to last Monday in October, ordinarily a time of year when not much is underway in northern Montana except the weather sharpening its teeth…”  

Kindle Location 397

Doig’s novels are a collection of love letters to Montana. He is a master at melding plot, characters, and setting into beautiful stories. Books are tied together through characters who show across in multiple stories. The Duffs are relatives of Nina Duff in “Dancing at the Rascal Fair” and the bartender Tom Harry and his partner (?) Proxy feature in this novel and show up years later in “The Bartender’s Tale.” 

If you haven’t read Ivan Doig, you can do worse than starting with “Dancing at the Rascal Fair”, follow up with this, and then move on as you see fit.

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