Bucking the Sun Background Notes

listening up and rolling the dice

It became a refrain I couldn't ignore as a writer: "There in the Depression, I got on at Fort Peck and then..." Time and again as I interviewed people in background research for the Two Medicine trilogy and my other books, they would turn to that first living wage, that first love affair, that first brush with death on the big Fort Peck dam job; turning-points in life were a dime a dozen at Fort Peck, they made me know.


Capturing the scene at Fort Peck Dam

The epic project of the New Deal, at the depth of the Depression the Fort Peck Dam put more than ten thousand people back to work, with money in their pockets. And along with the five years that it took to build the world's biggest earthen dam came a roiling collection of construction boomtowns where there had been only snakes and gopher holes. Wheeler, Delano Heights, Square Deal, Free Deal and the other wage-fueled shantytowns famously captured by Margaret Bourke-White's camera in the first issue of LIFE magazine disappeared as fast as they came, but the Fort Peck experience stayed in people's lives. By capturing the water of the Missouri River, it launched them.


The spillway at Fort Peck

In short, I saw that Fort Peck and its times were a tapestry of dream for a novelist: ordinary people with extraordinary stories to tell. But what it took to write the book was a three-year roll of the dice, investing into Bucking the Sun everything I've ever learned as a wordsmith. The poetry of the everyday, as when the damworkers step out onto the rod-and-collar devices that hold an immense steel tunnel-liner rigid and call that, I learned, "riding the tension spiders." The craft of work, from diver Bruce Duff walking the bottom of the Missouri River, to taxi dancer Proxy Shannon who "dances the dimes" (and occasionally more) out of the men of the dam crew. The kaleidoscope of telling characteristics, such as the pint-size sheriff's habit of calling his .12-gauge Marlin shotgun "Marlene."

I'm obviously no minimalist; for Bucking the Sun I felt I had to create the five couples of the Duff family—every man and woman of them at work at Fort Peck—and the sheriff they bedevil. They go at each other, and life's blinding questions of love and allegiance and rivalry, in more than 350 scenes. (Comparably, I read that Martin Scorsese's most complex movie, Casino, has 269.) People sometimes ask me if writing is hard. When I answer about Bucking the Sun, I tell them all I had to do was to go away for three years into the 1930's and work every day at bringing back a book as big as those times.

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