Doig, Ivan (1939-2015)

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 4/23/2018
  • Essay 20546

Ivan Doig spent much of his adult life in the Seattle area but his imagination rarely wandered far from his native Montana. The author of 13 novels and three nonfiction books, including the acclaimed memoir This House of Sky, Doig was a masterful storyteller whose best work depicted a Montana that was "authentic down to the last fence rail" (McNamee). He used skills acquired as a journalist and as an academically trained historian (with a Ph.D. from the University of Washington) to anchor his books with realism. He had a fetish for facts and a passion for detail. He also had a poet's gift for language, dropping silken sentences and lyrical phrases onto his pages with apparently effortless ease. His books all centered, in one way or another, on the people and landscapes of the American West. But he resisted efforts to pigeonhole him as a regional writer. "I don't think of myself as a 'Western' writer," he wrote on his website, "To me, language -- the substance on the page, that poetry under the prose -- is the ultimate 'region,' the true home, for a writer" ("A Note to Readers").

Rocky Mountain Roots

Ivan Clark Doig was a third-generation Montanan of Scottish heritage. He was born on June 27, 1939, in White Sulphur Springs, the only child of Charles Campbell "Charlie" Doig (1901-1971), a ranch hand, and Berneta Ringer Doig (1914-1945), a ranch cook. He was living with his parents in a sheepherding camp when his mother died, of asthma, on his 6th birthday. For the next few years, he and his father bounced around ranches and small towns along the Rocky Mountain Front -- a chain of escarpments and peaks rising from the prairies of Northern Montana to the Continental Divide. One of his last novels, The Bartender's Tale (published in 2012), was inspired by his father's habit of taking him along on weekly forays to local saloons. He recalled in his memoir:

"I was a boy I would scarcely know on the street today. Chunky, red-haired, freckled -- the plump face straight off a jar of strawberry jam. Always wearing a small cowboy hat, because I seared in the sun" (House, 74).

He entered into a more settled kind of childhood at age 11, when his maternal grandmother, Elizabeth "Bessie" Ringer (1893-1974), moved into the household to help raise him. Doig described his family as "the Western equivalent of sharecroppers" (Mason interview). His father often worked on "shares," raising livestock on a seasonal basis for ranchers, then getting a share of the proceeds when the sheep or cattle were sold. His grandmother, like his mother, was a ranch cook. They moved frequently. Doig usually "boarded out" during the school year, living with families in town when school was in session. He, too, began working as a ranch hand, as soon as he was old enough, at age 15.

It was a hardscrabble life, not much above subsistence level, but deeply nourishing for the young boy's imagination. His mother had taught him to read at an early age. He didn't have much access to books, but he devoured comic books and any other kind of reading material he could find. "No matter how close to broke we were, my dad would pony up some dimes for comic books" (Mason interview). He graduated from comic books to newspapers, especially the sports pages, and magazines. He pored over old issues of Life, Colliers, and Saturday Evening Post, left by previous tenants at the various ranches where the family lived. It was "all food for the eye" (Mason interview).

School Days

Doig credited his voracious reading habits with giving him "a sense of vocabulary and language that then translated into me being the brightest kid in school" (Mason interview). His love of language was buttressed by his favorite high-school teacher, Frances Carson Tidyman, who taught Latin, English, and occasionally Spanish, in addition to directing plays, advising the student staffs of the newspaper and yearbook, and overseeing the library at Valier High School in the small ranching town of Valier, Montana. "The foliage of her learning laced everywhere through the school" (House, 191).

By the time he graduated in 1957, one of 22 students in his class, Doig was determined to get out of the ranching life.

"I didn't exactly hate sheep. But I hated the economic uncertainties of running sheep on shares -- sort of sharecropping for rich ranchers who owned all the land -- and being perpetually at the mercy of the weather and market prices" (Gorner).

He remembered one particularly calamitous summer when he had been helping his father manage sheep on leased land along the Two Medicine River, east of Glacier National Park. They waited until early July to shear some 2,000 ewes, expecting the weather to stay warm. Newly shorn sheep look "like hospital invalids with their gowns suddenly ripped away," Doig wrote (House, 217), and are mortally susceptible to cold for about a week, until their fleece begins to grow back. The day after shearing was completed, a cold, driving rainstorm blew in. They lost several hundred sheep and most of the expected profit for the year. It was the third year in a row that something disastrous had happened to the family's finances. "As much as at any one instant in my life, I can say: here I was turned" (House, 222).

Doig won a full-tuition scholarship to Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and headed east. "I came to Evanston in the fall of 1957 and stepped off a train onto Davis Street, which was a brick street. I'd never seen a brick street before" (Gorner). He majored in journalism, and dreamed of becoming another Edward R. Murrow. He learned to write tight and on deadline. He earned spending money by washing dishes. "I had very little social life, no money and was Montana bashful. I was also a grind" (Gorner).

He graduated with a bachelor's degree in journalism in 1961 and was awarded a scholarship for a year of graduate study. He was teaching in a summer program for high-school students when he met a "trim, steady-eyed brunette of definite opinions and clean-edged talents" (House, 265). Her name was Carol Muller. She, too, was a recent Northwestern graduate, teaching in the same program. She thought he was "the kind of guy you could depend on, and I did for 50 years" (Clarridge). The Montana boy and the New Jersey girl got married on April 17, 1965. Doig often credited Carol with being his "partner in crime," as a researcher, editor, and -- for many years while he was establishing himself as a writer -- main breadwinner.

Facing a mandatory draft into military service after he received his master's degree from Northwestern in 1962, Doig joined the Air Force Reserve. He flew from Chicago to San Antonio, Texas, for basic training; it was his first ride in an airplane. He was assigned to Sheppard Air Force Base in northern Texas for further training. "The Air Force had scanned my college degrees in journalism and slotted me to become a propeller repairman," he noted wryly (House, 262). His classes met at 6 a.m. In order to have time to shave, dress, clean the barracks, eat, drill, and march before class, he had to get up at 3 a.m. The experience helped make him a lifetime early riser.

Course Correction

Released from active duty in 1963, Doig returned to Illinois and worked for a year as an editorial writer for a small newspaper chain based in Decatur. He then joined the staff of The Rotarian magazine, based in Evanston, as an assistant editor. Carol was working as an editor for a Methodist publishing house in a nearby Chicago suburb. He missed the mountains; she missed the ocean. In 1966, a year after their marriage, they decamped for Seattle. Carol began what would become a 30-year career teaching journalism and the literature of the American West at Shoreline Community College.

Doig enrolled in graduate school at the University of Washington. He planned to get a doctorate in American history and teach at the university level. He slogged his way through three solid years of seminars and exams and finally "claimed the degree at the last dusty furrow of it all" (House, 296). He decided he was not cut out for seminar rooms and faculty meetings; he wanted to write more than he wanted to teach. He turned down the offer of a university job and began writing fulltime, working at "the shaggiest and most marginal of its modes, free-lancing for magazines" (House, 296).

By the mid-1970s, Doig was working on what would become his breakout book, a memoir based on his life with his father and grandmother on the Rocky Mountain Front. For this project, as with others to come, he augmented his personal memories with dogged research. Accompanied by Carol, he visited the ranches and small towns where he had grown up; looked through family albums; interviewed relatives, friends, and acquaintances; and searched libraries for relevant documentation. Through it all he tried to hone what his friend and fellow Montanan Norman Maclean (1902-1990) called the poetry under the prose: "I vowed to try to have a 'trap of poetry' in the book's every sentence. I suppose that inclination is visible in all my books" ("Ivan Doig and the Whistling Season").

This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind, published in 1978, was hailed as "beautifully written, deeply felt" (Los Angeles Times), "engrossing and moving" (Time), and "the stirring debut of a gifted writer" (Kirkus Reviews), among other accolades ("This House of Sky: Book Reviews"). Doig counted up the reviews: 32 in national publications, all but two lavishing praise on the book. "Mr. Doig was not mistaken in his choice of a writing as a career," the New York Times reviewer wrote, adding, "Mr. Doig's story reinforces our diminishing conviction that there is something special in American earth, in American experience and in the harrowing terms of American survival" (Morris). House of Sky was a finalist for the 1979 National Book Award in the category of Contemporary Thought. By 1992, when the publisher brought out a new edition, it had sold more than 170,000 copies; was being widely used in college classrooms; had been translated into German, and had been selected as one of the books to be discussed in a nationwide program funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Dialogue with James Swan

For his second book, Doig turned from Montana to the damp world of the Olympic Peninsula and the life of James G. Swan (1818-1900), a man who left Boston (and a wife and two children) in 1850 and ended up about as far west as he could get. Swan lived at Shoalwater (now Willapa) Bay and then at Neah Bay near Cape Flattery at the northwestern tip of the peninsula before settling in Port Townsend. Swan had a kaleidoscopic range of occupations, including ethnographer. His 55,000-word monograph about the Makah Indians, titled The Indians of Cape Flattery and published by the Smithsonian Institution in 1870, remains the primary ethnographic account of the Makah to this day.

Above all, Swan was "an incessant compiler and recorder of information" (Robbins, 138). From 1859 until just before his death he kept a voluminous and detailed diary, amounting to more than 2.5 million words. Doig stumbled across the unpublished diary -- stashed away in gray archival boxes at the University of Washington's Suzzallo library -- while researching "some forgotten frontier pursuit or another" (Winter Brothers, 3). He felt an immediate kinship with Swan. Both had been drawn to the northwest edge of the continent by a "westering" impulse; they both had "a preference for gossamer possibilities, such as words, rather than hard and fast obligations, such as terms of employment" (Winter Brothers, 240). He decided to spend a winter, from December 22 to the first day of spring, in a sort of dialogue with Swan, juxtaposing passages from Swan's diary with parallel observations of his own.

The resulting book -- Winter Brothers: A Season at the Edge of America, published in 1980 -- is hard to classify. It has elements of both biography and memoir. Doig took to calling it "a journal of a journal" ("Winter Brothers Background Notes"). His publisher described it as "a dialogue across time" (Winter Brothers, back cover). The New York Times reviewer thought some of the passages were forced and some were overwritten, but concluded that "the occasional patches of dullness or lushness should deter no one from devouring this gorgeous tribute to a man and a region unjustly neglected heretofore" (Sokolov).

While researching Winter Brothers, Doig came across an 11-inch report in a microfilmed copy of the Oregon Weekly Times about four indentured servants who had escaped from a work camp in Russian-held Alaska in 1852. Three of them made it to Astoria in a stolen canoe. He printed out the item and filed it away. It became the genesis for his first venture into fiction, The Sea Runners, published in 1982.

Montana Trilogies

The Sea Runners was in production when Doig began working on a trilogy of novels covering 100 years of Montana history, filtered through the fictional McCaskill family, denizens of the Two Medicine country of Montana where Doig grew up. The first-written of the three, English Creek (released in 1984), is narrated by 14-year-old Jick McCaskill and centers on a summer horseback-riding trip with his forest-ranger father, Varick. Dancing at the Rascal Fair (1987) takes place a generation earlier and tells the story of Jick's grandfather, Angus McCaskill, and his best friend, Rob Barclay, who emigrate together from Scotland and homestead in Montana. The final installment, Ride with Me, Mariah Montana (1990), brings back Jick, now in his 60s and "facing age and loss" (as the book jacket puts it). He is coaxed into touring Montana in a Winnebago with his headstrong daughter Mariah during the state's centennial year in 1989.

Doig anchored these books, like all his work, with meticulous research. To absorb the rhythm and tone of the vernacular language spoken by characters in English Creek, he studied material collected in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Writers Project. With Carol, he traveled to Scotland, looking for shards of information to weave into Rascal Fair. One of the characters in that book tells a joke that Doig found in an old jokebook in a Scottish archive. He and Carol tooled around Montana in a rented Winnebago, using her camera and his tape recorder and notepad to ferret out the details that brought Ride with Me to life. A Washington Post writer noted, "Doig is one of those historians who goes from library to library forever on the scent of new documentation. He pores over faded records and newspapers, he reads, he hikes, he travels, he explores, and he talks to all the old people he can" (Critchfield).

Carol Doig once said that her husband was never without his pocket notebook and woe to anyone who believed a conversation held near him was truly private. Doig said of himself that "I write best about things I can either see or get firmly in mind through research" (Robbins, 135).

The McCaskill trilogy cemented Doig's reputation as a leading figure in the literature of the American West. He followed it up with another 10 books over the next 25 years, an output that included another trilogy, featuring the indomitable Morris "Morrie" Morgan. Doig introduced Morrie in The Whistling Season (a New York Times best-seller in 2006) with this memorable line: "He was lightly built, and an extraordinary amount of him was mustache" (33). Morrie was a supporting character in that novel -- presented as a nimble wordsmith, pressed into service as the teacher in a one-room rural schoolhouse -- but he moved to center stage in Work Song (2010) and Sweet Thunder (2013), both set in the metropolis of Butte, Montana, during the era of the copper kings.

Selling Books

Doig accumulated tributes with each new book: the Western Literature Association's Lifetime Distinguished Achievement Award (1989), the Wallace Stegner Award from the University of Colorado's Center for the American West (2007), the Willamette Writers' Lifetime Achievement Award (2014), and many others. He received more awards from the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association than any other writer (as of 2018).

In the early days of his career, Doig had to hustle to sell his work. He arranged his own tours of regional bookstores, bringing along remaindered copies of earlier books to try to sell along with each new one. But over the years, he built up a fan base that many other writers came to envy. Edmonds bookseller Mary Kay Sneeringer said Doig's signings eventually drew Harry Potter-like lines. People jammed the Alberta Bair Theater in Billings to hear him give the keynote address during the High Plains Book Festival in 2006. More than a thousand attended his reading at the Montana Festival of the Book in Missoula in 2012. Missoula-based author William Kittredge (b. 1932) recalled being at a group signing in Seattle when the crowds skirted Kittredge and most of his fellow writers and lined up in front of Doig: "He was complaining because he'd signed so many books he had blisters on his hands" (Walsh).

Medical Journey

Shortly after completing the manuscript for his 12th book, titled The Eleventh Man, Doig began a medical journey that led him into what he called "The waiting room of Hell furnished with side effects" ("Journey"). About six years earlier, he had been diagnosed with a blood condition called "monoclonal gammopathy of unknown significance" (MGUS). Although often benign, MGUS can develop into multiple myeloma -- a cancer of the plasma cells (a type of white blood cell). In April 2006, the results of a routine blood test, followed by a bone-marrow test, showed that Doig had developed "smoldering" myeloma -- an asymptomatic precursor of cancer. By November of that year, the disease had progressed to the active stage.

A man who did his best thinking by writing things down, Doig began a sort of medical journal, filing away handwritten and typed notes related to his diagnosis, his sessions with doctors and nurses, his worries about the impact of the disease and its treatment on his mental acuity, and his thoughts about mortality, among other musings. "My mood is not bad, to use the Scotch term for pretty good," he wrote in a letter sent to friends after his diagnosis was confirmed by a second opinion in December 2006, "I don't have any 'Why me?' about this. I have always figured that life in its luck of the draw is constantly asking any of us, 'Why the hell not you?'" ("Dr. Ginsburg ...").

Treatment began in early January 2007 with a drug regimen that included thalidomide. Doig was bemused by the fact that a drug that had become infamous in the 1960s, because of its association with severe birth defects when used by pregnant women, was now part of the standard protocol for treatment of blood disorders. In April, he underwent a short course of chemotherapy, followed by a stem cell transplant. One of the many side effects was the temporary loss of his thick beard, part of his face since he was in his early 30s. He was worried that it would not grow back by September 2007, when he was scheduled to receive the Stegner award. He wondered when he would be able to work in his garden, eat a cheeseburger cooked on his own grill, sleep through the night without medication.

"Mortality is not all it's cracked up to be," he wrote in a note typed onto an index card ("Journey"). "I turned into a human pill bottle," he wrote on another ("Introduction ..."). And: "For the first time in years I wrote in my diary every single day. Necessity is a hell of a muse," and: "invariably fatal. Damn. But then, so is life" ("Journey").

He began thinking about a book about cancer, and played around with possible titles, including "Living with It" and "Next." He imagined a character who reacts to a cancer diagnosis by poring over medical literature "like a graduate student at gunpoint." He fought off the side effects of the maintenance drugs used to keep myeloma at bay and kept writing. "Writing proved to be therapy for the therapy." He worked with his hematologist to adjust his medication levels so that the side effects would not interfere with book tours and interviews. "Somewhere back in Scottish time ... the name Doig seems to have been Dogg," he wrote in a note to himself, "as in 'dogged.'" (All quotes from "Journey.")

There was perhaps no better word than "dogged" to describe his approach to this stage of his life.

"A Consummate Farewell"

Ivan Doig died at age 75 at his home in Shoreline, just north of Seattle, in the early morning hours of April 9, 2015. His survivors included Carol, his wife of 50 years (they had no children). In the eight years between the beginning of his treatment for myeloma and his death, he had written four novels and sketched out plans for a fifth. "Ivan was far from being out of ideas," Carol wrote, "He had them in spades. What he ran out of was time" ("Introduction ...").

His last novel, aptly titled Last Bus to Wisdom and published a few months after his death, was inspired by a cross-country trip he took as a boy in the summer of 1951. The Chicago Tribune called it "a consummate farewell," one that "like his best work, features a young narrator sifting definitions of home" (Miner). Reviewing it for New York Times, Seattle-based writer Bruce Barcott praised Last Bus as "one of Doig's best novels, an enchanting 1950s road-trip tale that swaps Kerouac's Sal Paradise for a plucky 11-year-old named Donal Cameron," and added this:

"There's a full-circle feel to the book. Donal's early circumstances -- Montana ranch, grandmother's care -- match those of the author's own, and it's warming to think that in his final months Doig shared the writing hours with one of his greatest characters: a version of his younger self wound up and set spinning on the long zigzag adventure called life in the American West" (Barcott).

Years earlier, at an appearance at Powell's Books in Portland, Doig had been asked "Why do you write?" His answer: "A lifetime of reasons, but here's one: for the love of language and that daily tryst of the pair of us, it and me, creating something that did not exist before" ("Ink Q&A").

In October 2015, Carol donated Ivan Doig's archive -- manuscripts, file cards, drafts, photos, slides, tape recordings, medical notes, and more -- to the Montana State University Library in Bozeman. The university has since digitized virtually every piece of paper in the collection, making it available online for anyone with an internet connection. Among the ephemera is a yellow post-it note, attached to a copy of a letter sent to a few selected friends after his myeloma diagnosis in December 2007. In Doig's handwriting, it reads: "Life goes on until proven otherwise" ("Dr. Ginsburg ...").


Gregory McNamee, "In Memoriam: Ivan Doig, 1939-2015," Kirkus Reviews, April 9, 2015 (; Ivan Doig, The Whistling Season (New York: Harcourt, 2006); Doig, This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978); George Mason interview with Ivan Doig, July 21, 2014, Shoreline, Washington, video available at The Authors Road website accessed April 19, 2018 (; Peter Gorner, "Montana Novelist Ivan Doig Is One of a Number of Regional Writers Yearning for Wider Pastures," Chicago Tribune, December 10, 1987 (; Christine Clarridge, "Award-winning Author Ivan Doig Dies; Was 'Dean of Western Writers,'" The Seattle Times, April 9, 2015, p. A-1; "Ivan Doig and the Whistling Season: Interview with Ivan Doig," Harcourt Books website via Internet Archive accessed April 19, 2018 (; Wright Morris, "Times of the Males," New York Times Book Review, January 7, 1979, p. 4; William G. Robbins, "The Historian as Literary Craftsman," Pacific Northwest Quarterly, October 1987, pp. 134-140; Doig, Winter Brothers: A Season at the Edge of America (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1980); Doig, "A Note to Readers," Ivan Doig website accessed April 2018 (; Doig, "Winter Brothers Background Notes," Ivan Doig website accessed April 2018 (; Raymond A. Sokolov, "Westering Journals," New York Times Book Review, January 11, 1981, p. 12; Richard Critchfield, "Ivan Doig: The Old West and the New," Washington Post Book World, October 18, 1987, p. 1; Cory Walsh, "Acclaimed Western Writer Ivan Doig Dies at 75," Missoulian, April 9, 2015 (; "This House of Sky: Book Reviews," Montana State University Library Ivan Doig Archive website accessed April 22, 2018 (; "Journey: Musings on Myeloma and Much More," Montana State University Library Ivan Doig Archive website accessed April 19, 2018 (; "Dr. Ginsburg MGUS into Active Myeloma, November 2006-December 2008," Montana State University Library Ivan Doig Archive website accessed April 19, 2018 (; Carol Doig, "Introduction of Ivan Doig's Medical Journey," May 25, 2015, Montana State University Library Ivan Doig Archive website accessed April 19, 2018 (; Valerie Miner, "Review: 'Last Bus to Wisdom' by Ivan Doig," Chicago Tribune, August 13, 2015 (; Bruce Barcott, "The West, Young Man," New York Times Sunday Book Review, August 16, 2015, p. 12; "Ink Q&A: Ivan Doig," Powell's Books website via Internet Archive accessed April 19, 2018 (

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