The Dammed
New York Times Sunday Book Review, June 16, 1996


by Ivan Doig.
412 pp. New York: Simon & Schuster. $23.

UNLIKE MOST SCOTS, Ivan Doig wears his heart on his sleeve. He is a man more than half in love with history, his own included. His best book, "This House of Sky," is a nonfiction ticket to the author's boyhood in the Montana of the 1940's, with his mother, who died when he was 6, his ranch-hand dad and his unforgettable grandmother. In matters of work and grief, of place and kinship, he can make you remember with him and sometimes weep -- unless, of course, you have a heart of stone and come from the effete East.

Doig novels can be something else again. A historian and journalist by training, he has nonetheless striven for years to bear witness to Montana history in fiction, and to become if not the Homer at least the Virgil of generations of Scots who migrated to northwestern Montana before and after it became a state in 1889.

Mostly they are sheepmen, like his father and grandfather, predictably plagued by coyotes and big cattlemen, small grazing allotments and savage weather. (Doig books rarely spare us a description of a mile-high Montana blizzard; after one of these, few readers will blame him for living in Seattle.) His Scots are stubborn, enduring and reticent, not exactly ideal subjects for popular fiction in an age of tell-all talk shows and whiny therapy.

Like any novelist, especially a novelist bent on giving history lessons, Mr. Doig is obliged to throw a bone to readers who may find themselves in need of fluffy things like romance, suspense and plot. The last time out, in "Ride With Me, Mariah Montana," he smuggled a centennial celebration of Montana's past under a fig leaf of fiction. The story involves a rancher father banging around the state with his divorced daughter, who is a photographer, and his former son-in-law, a journalist. The two are collaborating on a series of newspaper articles, so they teach us a lot about Montana. But what is supposed to keep laggards reading is whether or not (as the dad fears) the daughter will fall for the ghastly former son-in-law again and once more ruin her life.

The good news about "Bucking the Sun" is that here Mr. Doig artfully seasons the history lesson by serving it up with an intricate case of murder. This helps with the occasional longueurs of what is otherwise a wide-screen, Depression-era narrative largely devoted to the problems of building the Fort Peck Dam. This was a time when 17 million people (in a population of about 140 million) were out of work. When Franklin Roosevelt was pouring Government money into jobs through the W.P.A. and the P.W.A. When Harry Hopkins scored over the less generous Harold Ickes with the line "But Harold, people don't eat in the long run, they eat every day." The Fort Peck Dam (which made the first cover of Life magazine in November 1936) put 10,000 people to work. When finished, it created a reservoir 135 miles long, provided flood control and was the biggest earth-fill dam in the world.

To shovel this construction epic into narrative as painlessly as possible, Mr. Doig mixes fact and fiction, filtering as much history as he can through the lives of the Duff family, whose members all labor on the dam, often under the tutelage of Owen Duff, one of its chief engineers. An elder brother looking out for his kinfolk and constantly at odds with Hugh, his tippling father, Owen manfully commands fleets of dredges and legions of workers, directs earth-moving miracles and fends off disaster from flood and ice during the inevitable Montana blizzard. His mother, Meg, cooks for workers in a mess hall -- and puts up with Hugh. Owen's reckless, feckless younger brother Bruce moves from job to job, finally becoming a diver in the murk of the Missouri. Careful Neil, Bruce's twin, bushwhacks and drives a truck.

Along the way, all three boys get married. We also hear a speech by F.D.R., "the big gravy spreader himself," learn about Fort Peck's shantytown housing and the prevalence of prostitution (remarked upon even by Life) and are taught the difference between "tunnel muckers," "catskinners" and "shovel runners." Loads of rock hauled in from the nearby hills to reinforce the dam bring in piles of angry rattlesnakes -- so many that workers make money selling souvenir rattles.

If the Duff men are not exactly from central casting, at least central casting would have little trouble placing them. The women they marry are more interesting -- especially one called Proxy (from peroxide blonde), a whore not quite with a heart of gold. Mr. Doig somehow manages to make her believable even though she marries Hugh's long-lost brother, Darius, while still taking on anybody with cash who pleases her down at the Blue Eagle tavern. It is Darius, though, who brings a measure of complexity to the novel. A shipyard union organizer from Scotland with a "need to chew at the heels of the powers that be," he turns out to be a man who actively wishes the dam project ill.

If, while reading the above, you've been wondering about that murder, that's exactly what happens to readers of "Bucking the Sun." With the guile of a Montana coyote, the author lures you through his romance with the big dam with teasing hints and guesses. Bit by bit, he lets you realize that the dead bodies (of two of the Duff clan) are no accident, and that more Duffs seem to be involved. But, full of Scottish family loyalty, how could they be? And so, out of 10,000 workers on the dam, Mr. Doig reduces his suspects to 10 -- creating a neat, excruciating Agatha Christie country-house murder set down in sprawling Montana. And even when the who of it becomes clear, the how of it remains a mystery that will hold any summer reader to the very last sentence.