Saturday, May 23, 2015

Bucking the Sun

Bucking the SunBucking the Sun by Ivan Doig
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love Ivan Doig's writing! He captures Montana like no other writer I've come across. This book is slightly different than the others I've read in that it's kind of historical fiction. It's set during the depression, when the WPA decided to build a dam on the Missouri River, in northeastern Montana, at Ft. Peck. But in typical Doig style, it's also the story of a family, the Duffs, whose lives are entwined with the building of the dam. The father, Hugh, is a farmer along the river, upstream from the dam site. He's barely eking out a living, but when told he has to move because his farm will be flooded, he doesn't take it well. Part of his enmity toward the dam is the fact that his oldest son, Owen, is one of the primary engineers for the dam, and they have an estranged relationship - probably stemming from the fact that Owen didn't want to be a farmer like his father, and went off to college. The book follows what happens to the family, as they all end up working at the dam site.

The story is told as a sort of flashback/flashforward, centering on the mystery of a naked man and woman found drowned in a truck in the reservoir. It mostly centers on the Duff clan, all of whom end up working at the dam site, in one capacity or another, including Hugh's brother, Darius, a communist/unionist from Scotland, who shows up and throws a monkey wrench into the already tangled relationships of the family. Doig's characters are all wonderfully fleshed out. They are all very believable and Doig is able to make them recognizable as typical Montana folk, without being stereotypical. I felt as if I could bump into any of them in any small Montana town. The twists and turns of their relationships lead to the final reveal of the mystery, which is quite plausible.

The characters alone are only part of this book. Dominating and driving the plot is the dam. It's practically another character. It was the largest back-filled earthen dam in the world (may still be), at four miles long. Building it was a major achievement of engineering and manpower. Over 10,000 workers helped to build it. Part of my enjoyment of the book was reading about how it was designed and built, and the obstacles they had to overcome to do so. It was absolutely fascinating and never bogged down the flow of the narrative.

The title of the book comes from a saying that is used to describe what happens when the sun is setting or rising and is just on the horizon and blinds you, but you keep on driving (or doing whatever else you're doing) regardless of the danger. We see this played out explicitly with one of the characters driving back to Ft. Peck one evening, but we also see this metaphorically, as characters are blinded by their fears or desires, yet keep going forward anyway, heedless of what might result. It is this blind progress that causes the conflict among the characters. An apt metaphor, indeed.

I highly recommend this book to anyone from Montana, to history buffs, and to mystery lovers. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

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