Montana was once mainly famous as Big Sky Country, but lately, what with accused mad bombers in its rugged hills, holed-up antigovernment ranchers defying the law and reclusive movie stars, it has gotten attention for tales of fact stranger than fiction. Now Ivan Doig, a native Montanan, has woven an epic-size novel in "Bucking the Sun," and one wonders if there's something about the state's very extremes of sky and earth that draw out this rush of plot and character.
One family is at the center of the story. From mettlesome mother Meg and cantankerous father Hugh to their three lanky sons and their colorful wives to Hugh's radical brother Darius, lately arrived from Scotland, each member of the Duff family has a story and a piece of the action.It's a mystery, a puzzle still haunting a bad-tempered little sheriff toward the end of his days: how a pickup truck containing two Duffs, both nude, plummeted down a ramp and into the vast lake formed by the Fort Peck Dam. As his undersheriff told him the day the bodies were found: "Married, you bet. Only not to each other."
The mystery frames the book, the beginning and the end, a seemingly neat package on which to hang the story. But there's nothing neat and tidy about "Bucking the Sun," an expression signifying pushing on against the glare of the sunrise or sunset. Like the title, the characters, for all their foibles, seem almost dwarfed by the descriptions of nature vs. machinery.
The battle lines form as the family struggles to fight off grasshoppers plaguing its alfalfa farm on the rich Missouri River bottomland. Doig lovingly describes the June green of the fields, the line of rocky bluffs, the curl of the river against the land. He evokes as well the lurking danger and the sounds of munching as the insects inexorably destroy the crop.
With the passage of decades, the horrible sweep of agricultural disasters that set the stage for the Great Depression have been instilled into the national memory, especially images of dusty Oklahoma fields. We tend to forget the other plagues - of grasshoppers, jackrabbits and plunging prices. Hugh Duff is determined to hold on, to fight off nature's villains and reap the green gold. His wife is convinced the battle is lost. When a government agent shows up to tell them President Roosevelt is offering salvation by drowning their land and giving them jobs, he is furious. He is even more furious when he discovers his eldest son, Owen, will design the dam's earthen fill.
This antagonism - the father's stubbornness about agriculture, the brilliant son's belief in technological progress - develops as the clan moves to the site of Fort Peck Dam, a monumental project devised as much to produce jobs and wages, to drive back the national sense of despair, as to protect downstream land from flooding.
The characters multiply as the story moves along, from the original Duffs to lovers in quickly sketched romances, to wives for the dirt engineer and his less talented brothers, who are twins. The women are more fully drawn than the men; there are the ambitious and beautiful Charlene, who resents her husband's romance with a pile of dirt; her aspiring novelist kid sister Rosellen and the spunky Kate.
They might have stuck together in the end, except that into the mix comes Hugh's brother Darius, fleeing union trouble in Scotland. Darius, long in love with Hugh's wife, Meg, settles into work on the dam, but agitates among the workers on the side, his anarchic beliefs settling into the family and the story like grit into a machine.
Doig adroitly plays his historical cards as the dam work fills in the years and the landscape. His sense of the drama of the West, of man against nature, of FDR's push to employ a destitute population, of the dark worldview of Darius the spoiler, is effective. His characters, particularly the women, sound modern and believable.