Montana is always in Ivan Doig’s heart, and his novels

Ivan Doig's tales of the West have made him one of America's top authors.

Writer Ivan Doig describes himself as “a history Ph.D. with a mind like a magpie.” It is worth keeping in mind when considering Doig’s 12 works of fiction and two memoirs that the black-billed magpie is found in nearly every county in Montana and that the bird is said by some to represent that part of ourselves that collects “bright shiny thoughts”; they also have one of the most developed vocabularies in the animal world.

As a novelist and memoirist, Doig’s “bright shiny thoughts” form a body of work that renders the Montana of days gone by, rooted in historical fact and parlayed with thoughtful intellect into stories that are as informative as they are pleasurable to read. His latest book, Sweet Thunder, is a case in point. The book follows a newspaperman who writes blazing editorials for a paper that competes with one published by the Anaconda Copper Company that really did hold Butte in its corporate vise in the 1920s. (BP now owns the company, which stopped mining in 1983.) The story is a good source of information about this company town, but the plot loses nothing to the history. Sweet Thunder is a pleasure to read, but it cannot be done without taking time to savor the underlying music of the prose.

Doig, ’69, was born in 1939 in White Sulphur Springs, Mont., but grew to manhood farther north along the Rocky Mountain Front, where the eastern slope of the Rockies meets the plains. Having lived and worked on ranches until he left for Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., Doig writes what he knows and the Montana he knows is in his blood. Many of the writers now living and publishing in Montana moved there from somewhere else. Tom McGuane, for example, was born in Michigan; Tim Cahill is from Nashville and William Kittredge is a native Oregonian. By contrast, Doig herded sheep on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana as a teenager.

“What’s singular about him is that he grew up on a ranch and he’s very well educated. The history doctorate you can see in a lot of his books. He is also singular because he has the poetic gift for language. He’s got this poetry; maybe you call it love, which comes through his writing. His book English Creek is a masterpiece,” says Nick O’Connell, ’85, ’96, author of On Sacred Ground: The Spirit of Place in Pacific Northwest Literature.

While he writes about Montana, Doig lives in a typical evergreen Seattle suburb and has done so since he received his doctorate in history from the UW. He and his wife Carol had been living in the Chicago area. He was an editor for Rotarian magazine and she worked for a similar magazine put out by the Methodist publishing house. “We had been in Evanston seven or eight years with college and all, got married there and we found ourselves driving 800 miles round trip on the weekends to see little fir trees in Wisconsin,” he recalls. Doig applied to the history programs at University of California, Santa Barbara and the UW. “The UW came through with a teaching assistantship worth $1,900 a year. We had never been to Seattle but we accepted sight unseen. We thought ‘what the hell, we’re going to do this.’”

The UW Libraries have played a part in every book I have ever written. The UW has been the heart of the great blood system of material for me.

Ivan Doig

At the UW, Doig landed under the wing of the western American historian Vernon Carstensen. “It was a good thing. He was a colorful talker, loved the language. He would mention ‘the unfeathered biped on the way across the continent,’ the human being. I stole something from him as recently as the latest book—the word ‘frass,’ meaning insect excrement,” says Doig. He wrote his dissertation on John J. McGilvra, a prominent judge in 19th-century Seattle who also happened to be the father-in-law of Thomas Burke, for whom the UW’s Burke Museum is named.

After earning his degree, Indiana University in Bloomington offered him a teaching position, “the best new journalism job in the country that year, the big tuna. The salary was good. I would have had research money. I turned it down to be a freelance writer. I was a flat-footed, fact-driven journalist and it took me awhile to realize I could make things up and write novels,” he says. In fact, his first book, This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind, was a finalist for the National Book Award in the nonfiction category called Contemporary Thought. A memoir based on life with his father and grandmother, it has sold more than a quarter million copies.

With two other exceptions his books have been fiction, based on historical research. Much of that research has been done at the UW Libraries. “Absolutely, the UW Libraries have played a part in every book I have ever written. The UW has been the heart of the great blood system of material for me. The Special Collections stacks were open to someone like me in the old days. A real coup was nosing through those shelves to find out-of-copyright art, largely northwest coastal scenes, to illustrate chapter headings of The Sea Runners,” he says.

If Doig loves the UW Libraries, especially Special Collections, the sentiment is returned. Betsy Wilson, vice provost for digital initiatives and dean of University Libraries, is a fan. “Not only does Ivan give voice to people and places long forgotten in his books, but he has become an eloquent advocate for the critical role the libraries play in preserving our collective memory so that new stories continue to come to life,” she says. Doig has been the keynote speaker at two fundraising events for UW Libraries. He even penned a piece for the UW Libraries newsletter, Library Directions. In it he recounts that when he was writing This House of Sky, he wanted to know the names of some of the nine saloons in White Sulphur Springs, Mont., in the late 1940s where the hired haying crews would go to drink. “My memory had come up short on a couple of the names of the saloons. Bob (Bob Monroe, Special Collections librarian from 1958 to 1980) led me down to his stacks, into the bibliophile equivalent of a wizard’s cellar and handed me the 1948 phone book for the town,” says Doig.

There isn’t much lollygagging. They left the lollygagging part out of me in the assemblage.

Ivan Doig

The Doigs’ home in the Innis Arden neighborhood is a perfect place to read and write. The neighborhood is replete with greenbelt reserves, Richmond Beach Park nearby, an intellectually nourishing setting for both Doigs. Their home was built in the Eisenhower years but was renovated about 20 years ago. The house is akin to Doig’s writing in that everything in it was chosen with care to be pleasing or functional. The living room with its maple floors, Northwest art and stunning view of the Sound is light and peaceful. The house is quiet. Doig and his wife each have studies downstairs. Doig’s desk is organized. There are note cards on it that he uses to jot down ideas for the next day’s work. There are six volumes of the Dictionary of American Regional English. “It tells you where they call them flapjacks, hot cakes, or pancakes,” he notes, adding with pleasure, “I’m in it 67 times.”

Behind his desk, he keeps small notebooks full of words and turns of phrase that he particularly likes. A quick look through one turned up the word “haunch,” in his neat handwriting. Asked if he and Carol have any “haunts,” places in Seattle where they like to go, Doig hollers to his wife, “Carol, do we have any haunts?” From her study, she says that they don’t. Then Doig points to his desk. “This is my haunt,” he says. Doig writes for four hours every morning. In the afternoons, he rewrites and organizes file cards for the next day’s work. “There isn’t much lollygagging. They left the lollygagging part out of me in the assemblage,” he says.

Poet Linda Bierds, ’69, ’71, UW professor of English, has been a friend of his for 25 years. “Ivan probably has the greatest work ethic of any writer I’ve known,” she says, “but he can have fun.”

Some of the fun occurs in his front yard, where Doig can garden and bird-watch. But for Doig the best fun may be digging around in library archives and then bringing history to light through the stories his imagination kindles while his readers wait patiently for the next Ivan Doig to hit the bookstores. Doig said in his UW Libraries newsletter article “every book is a rare book.” That’s certainly true of his books. No one else quite captures the West of the past with such studied elegance, the West of Ivan Doig.

An excerpt from ‘Sweet Thunder’

Thrust into the annual Miners Day parade as “Mounted Correspondent” of Butte’s plucky union newspaper, the Thunder, Morrie Morgan is about to score a scoop, thanks to Sam Sandison, legendary vigilante turned city librarian, and his ex-cowhands turned Rough Riders. Here Morrie is readying to be photographed for his moment of front-page fame:

Sandison stayed stirrup to stirrup with me as, down the block in front of us, cohort after cohort of defiantly singing miners marched past the lofty headquarters of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company. What a scene that moment of the parade was as a thousand voices lifted in the verse, “Down there deep we’re all one kind, / All one blood, all of one mind / I back you and you back me, / all one song in unity.” Flags waves, pinwheels spun on sticks children held like lollipops, the sun shone bright on a Butte free of strife for the course of a day. And tomorrow, I knew even without the sage glint in Sandison’s eye, the civil war of labor and capital would resume, I would shed my temporary mantle of mounted correspondent and resume editorial battle with the Post, the calendar page would be turned, with each of us one day nearer to our destiny.

But right now, my role in life was to look as presentable as possible astride a clip-clopping horse while portraiture occurred. Catercorner from the Hennessy Building, the photographer Sammy waited beside his big box camera on a tripod, gesturing urgently to make sure I saw him and was ready. Gruffly saying he didn’t want to break the camera, Sandison dropped back out of range. “Don’t forget to smile at the birdy, laddie.”

A smile became out of the question, however, as I spotted a number of bruisers strung out along the entire front of the Hennessy Building, positioned against the wall and the display windows with their hands over their private parts in the manner of museum guards and other functionaries who stand around for hours on end. Unquestionably, these had to be the extra goons making good on Anaconda’s threat to station guards at all company property, in this case merely for show around the infamous top-floor headquarters. Of a type I would not like to meet in a dark alley, the Anaconda operatives favored gabardine suits; as Hill lore had it, blood was more easily sponged off that than softer fabrics. In the holiday crowd, they stood out like gray wolves.

After my initial alarm, I realized the scene was actually peaceful, no guns on display or evident inclination toward any, and with the long file of miners having marched past without incident, apt to stay that way. Blind Heinie’s newsstand was situated right across the sidewalk from where the most prominent of the goons had made their presence known alongside the department store’s big windows, and as the sightless old news vendor entertained himself by slapping his thighs in rhythm with the Miners Band’s distant rendition of “When You and I Were Young, Maggie,” the nearest gabardined thugs were idly nodding along. Breathing a sigh of relief, I sat up tall as I could in the saddle to be ready for Sammy’s camera. The throng lining the sidewalk oohed and ahhed at the prospect of being in the picture, meanwhile making guesses about my importance. “I bet he’s some relative of Buffalo Bill’s. Look at that set of whiskers on him.” Trying to live up to all the attention, I patted Blaze’s neck, fiddled with the reins, straightened my hat. At least some of Armbrister’s hunch was paying off as, goons notwithstanding, the main display window with HENNESSY’S DEPARTMENT STORE in large golden lettering made a fetching backdrop, mannequins in cloche hats and flapper dresses indolently holding teacups, the mischievous implication there that since Prohibition had come in, “tea shops” served gin that way. Bobbing in and out from behind his viewfinder, Sammy called across the street to me, “Slow down a little, Morgie. I want to get the shot just as you pass the window.”

Blaze and I never made it past. As if in a strange dream, I still see the individual who looked like a drunken bum, appearing from the far side of Blind Heinie’s newsstand, suddenly plunge through the other onlookers and come stumbling out of the crowd to intercept us with something held like a bouquet. But no, too late I saw it was a rolled newspaper he had lit with a match, and with it flaming like a torch, he made a last running lurch and thrust the burning paper under Blaze’s tail.

Put yourself in the poor horse’s place. Driven wild by its singed hind part, my steed left the earth, and came down frantically swapping ends, bucking and kicking. His gyrations whirled us onto the sidewalk, scattering onlookers and goons alike. My panicky cries of “Whoa! Whoa!” fell on deaf horse ears. As if we were in a steeplechase, Blaze’s next jump aimed straight for the maidenly tea or gin party, as the case may have been, crashing us through the big display window.

Flappers flew, teacups sailed. Ducking falling glass, I was low as a jockey, clamping to the saddle for all I was worth.