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.
- 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?
- 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"?
- How do the shantytown settings and the emerging Fort Peck Dam summon the themes in Bucking the Sun?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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.
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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.
The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
The Hungry Years: America in an Age of Crisis, 1929-1939, T.H. Watkins
"Hey Sailor, What Ship?" short story in Tell me a Riddle, Tillie Olsen
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
Cadillac Desert, Marc Reisner
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,
Oxford University Press, 1992