The Death of Ivan Doig Leaves a Vacuum in Plains Writing

I was so sorry to learn that Ivan Doig has died—another great blow to Great Plains literature. First, back in November, Colorado's great Kent Haruf died, the author of Plainsong (1999), and now Doig, who was 75 and living in Seattle. Doug is the author of 16 books, mostly set in central or eastern Montana. People who love all of his work get into arguments about whether his best book is the novel Dancing at the Rascal Fair (1987) or This House of Sky, his 1979 memoir.

In each case we will have the consolation of a posthumous book. Haruf's Our Souls at Night is due to be released in May. Doig's Last Bus to Wisdom is due out on August 18. I've pre-ordered them both. Doig and Haruf were two of the giants of Great Plains literature. My plan now is to read all of Doig's books that I have so far overlooked.

Doig had a beautiful, quiet, brooding prose style, understated, but more powerful because he was not straining to capture the Great Plains and Intermountain West in one magnificent paragraph of purple prose. He understood that the kind of people who pioneered the farm country of Montana were strong, rough, sexist, pragmatic; basic in their outlook but with a lot more going on in their souls than they had access to on most days. Drink was the way they coped, or coped when prayer and hard work weren't sufficient, and drink was the magic key that opened the door to all that was dark and unresolved in their lives. In reading Doig you get a sense of what it took to make Montana (or any Great Plains state), and you cannot help wonder if we, the great, great grandchildren of those "giants in the earth" have enough of the right stuff to take things to the next level.

A number of years ago, Doig described his muted but poetic prose style: "My eight or nine published poems," he wrote, "showed me that I lacked a poet's final skill; the one Yeats called closing a poem with the click of a well-made box. But still wanting to work at stretching the craft of writing toward the areas where it mysteriously starts to be art, I began working on what Norman Maclean has called the poetry under the prose—a lyrical language, with what I call a poetry of the vernacular in how my characters speak on the page."

The poetry under the prose. You can hear it in this short passage from Doig: "It came to me more as a whisper of suggestion than the fundamental adage that it is - if this is not biblical, I shall always believe it should be - that all of us need someone who loves us enough to forgive us despite the history." You can feel the melancholy in that, and some resignation. Doig understood that if we concentrated too much on "the history," we'd have to walk away from almost everyone we know, and vice versa.

I remember reading This House of Sky twenty years ago with the shock of recognition that comes when you discover that a major artist is writing about your world. I was living on a farm in Kansas at the time, in a village so tiny that the vast plains just ate you up. When you drove the section line roads or even the asphalt farm to market roads through that country, you almost had an out of body experience, almost could see your pickup from high above, as from a blimp, as it threaded its way on the long straight roads trailing dust through the endless undifferentiated countryside. There was so much sky in every direction, with thunderheads beginning to gather up out on the western horizon, so much flat or gently rolling land, dotted here and there with abandoned farmsteads, and every few miles a broad new ranch style farm house with fifteen cars. That was a perfect setting for reading This House of Sky. Doig's prose is the kind that makes you ache—for all that you have lost, for all that is inevitably lost, for the ways in which humans, no matter how intimate, work at cross purposes and damage each other's lives. You ache too to be in the presence of someone who gets what you get about the strange improbable landscapes of the Great Plains. Someone who loves this place enough to grace it with the incredible discipline (and gift) of a book.

Landscape is always effectively one of the characters in a Doig novel. Montana has that effect. For Colorado's Haruf the sweep of the high plains of eastern Colorado is just the backdrop of special futility in which the dark lives of his characters blunder their way through struggles and bewilderment. Once he has given you Holt, Colorado, (based largely on Yuma, out on the eastern plains), and you have absorbed how little it promises to anyone who grows or turns or washes up there, Haruf concentrates on the sad and bewildered story he needs to tell.

You cannot think about those great writers without feeling sad about the state of North Dakota literature. We have no Doig or Haruf. Our greatest living writer, in my opinion, is Larry Woiwode, but he hasn't written a book for a very long time that attempted to wrestle Dakota life to the ground. His magnum opus, Beyond the Bedroom Wall, was devoured when it first appeared in 1975, not only because we all realized that it was a serious book written about us, but that it was also a true work of literature and something more than a just a good regional novel. That has both helped and hurt Beyond the Bedroom Wall. My sense is that it is not read nearly as much as it deserves these days. I like all of Woiwode's more recent work, particularly Acts: A Writer's Reflection on the Church, Writing, and His Own Life (1993), but what I naturally want from so enormous a talent is another run at the Great North Dakota Novel.

Louise Erdrich is our other greatest writer, in my view. I love her work and envy her amazing talent. I think her work carries with it a great moral imperative, that we (she) give voice to the lives and loves and struggles and stories of Native Americans, that what for most North Dakotans remains essentially an "invisible culture" receive the artistic and public attention it deserves. My slight quarrel with Louise Erdrich is that she chooses not to live among us; we need her, to inspire young writers, to testify before the legislature, to speak out on public questions, to block—thanks to her grace and dignity and modesty—cultural setbacks in white-Indian affairs that happen when homogenous cultures forget to look around to see all the other people in the room.

But where are our Ivan Doigs, our Kent Harufs, our Willa Cathers, our Mari Sandozes, our William Kittredges, our James Welches, our Linda Hasselstroms, our Dan O'Briens, our Larry Watsons? I know a number of North Dakota writers and poets, and admire them, but what we need now is our first next major work of North Dakota literature.

Someone who will have the creative horsepower and Great Plains life experience to write a sentence like this, Doig's, "The nature of love is that it catches you off guard, subjects you to rules you have never faced, some of them contradictory."