Remembering Ivan Doig

The Daily News Online

I think it was the fall of 1977 or the spring of 1978. We had opened the Bookloft in Enterprise in late 1976, and were going to our first “trade show.” It was in a Seattle hotel, and there were tables and tables of books—books recently published or about to be—with publishers’ representatives standing behind their wares and offering special deals…. if we would just order so many books.

And there were authors’ appearances. Over the course of a weekend a dozen or more authors read briefly and talked about their new books, and we booksellers, new cloth book bags in hand and already filled with publishers’ catalogs, stood in line after the appearances for free autographed books.

Ivan Doig was an unknown at the time—still making a living as a journalist as I recall. But he was good, and I stood in line for him, and made it to the front before Harcourt Brace & Jovanovich ran out of copies of This House of Sky. When my turn came, Ivan looked me in the eye and asked me what my name was. “I’m going to sign this to you—so you won’t sell it!” he chuckled.

A few years passed, and a quiet couple came into the bookstore, browsed, and drank coffee in Judy’s Kitchen at the rear of the store. They didn’t announce themselves, but I slowly figured, from that first Seattle meeting and the jacket pictures on his books (by then there were several), that it was Ivan Doig. They said that writer-friend Craig Lesley had said good things about the country and our bookstore, so Ivan and his wife Carol had made the long drive from Montana or from Auntie’s Bookstore in Spokane to Portland and Seattle—or from Seattle and Portland to Spokane or Montana—taking the long route through Lewiston on Highway 3.  We had a short talk, they bought a book or two, and were on their way.

In 1988, I moved from the bookstore to Fishtrap, and immediately began inviting Ivan Doig to join us. I had a fistful of polite rejections when another writer, Bill Kittredge, explained that he and many of his friends enjoyed the writing conference circuit, but Ivan stayed home and wrote!

That didn’t deter me; I kept inviting him. And in 1994 our theme was “The Restless West: WW II and After,” and Ivan had a new book out. It was called Heart Earth, and covered the War period from a trove of letters between his mother and her brother, who was stationed on the USS Ault in the Pacific. Ivan’s mother had passed when he was six, so he was reconstructing a time in his own life and in her life that had been covered over as he and his dad moved from sheep ranch to cow camp across Montana in the 1940s and 50s. He would be a perfect fit.

I learned later that it wasn’t the theme that brought him to Fishtrap—historian Richard White, from the University of Washington, was our keynoter. He and Ivan were friends from the time Ivan picked up a Phd in History at UW. When sales of House of Sky took off, so did any thoughts of an academic career, though Doig is remembered for the attention to historical accuracy in all of his books.

So he and Richard had talked. Ivan had seen a little bit of the Wallowas, and that was good, and Richard’s friend, the historian Alvin Josephy, would be here. So there was the chance to meet him. He came, read, and talked, and we all loved him. Personable, honest, a man who read and treasured Irish writers and Australian writers as well as his American peers. For Ivan’s stories and Richard White on how WW 2 had shaped the West, and for Alvin’s stories of the Pacific—that was the time he played a recording of the landing at Guam—it was a memorable Fishtrap.

I can see him now at the Fishtrap podium. I think I am going to dig out a recording of his 1994 talk. I had no notion that he had been battling cancer for eight years, and his death on April 10, which I am now reading about in the Missoulian and the NY Times and Washington Post, slipped right by me. Those who knew him revere the connections (recollections like mine must be going on in thousands of minds as I write), and no one seems surprised that he had been quiet about the cancer, and gone on doing research, writing books, and granting interviews to the end.

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Something for the Birds

I finally got a copy of the movie, which was based in part on a story by Alvin Josephy, and stars Victor Mature as a Washington D.C. lobbyist and Patricia Neal as a bird lover on a mission to save California’s giant condors. The movie is nicely done—I particularly liked the old guy who passes himself off as a retired admiral and goes to all the big parties and receptions in town. In fact he works in a print shop that does fancy invitations, and, over time, follows the invitations he engraves to the parties. And of course becomes the lovable yentl in the romance between the lobbyist and the bird lover.

But the title and the movie say it all as far as Alvin and Hollywood are concerned. At least that is what I gather from recollected conversations and what he wrote about Hollywood in A Walk Toward Oregon. After the War, he had come to Hollywood thinking that there was room to write real movies about the war he and other writers had been through and the problems people were dealing with across the country. He was especially excited about a story he had picked up in the New York Times about black and white farmers working to reclaim depleted Georgia cotton land. There was initial enthusiasm for “Red Clay.” Alvin was sent to Georgia to do research and a co-writer and producer were assigned, but in the end, the story was deemed “not commercial enough” and abandoned. “Hollywood hokum,” he dubbed Hollywood movie moguls’ tastes.

Back to the birds! Alvin’s original story about the condors was called “Condors Don’t Pay Taxes,” because that was the argument used by the oil companies and their lobbyists who were trying to open condor nesting grounds to oil exploration. Alvin’s story detailed the work of a University of California scientist who found that the big birds tended one egg every two years and were very sensitive to human incursion. The movie skimmed the science and concentrated on the counterfeit admiral and the love story.

Alvin pointedly was not the screen writer on this one. And I have to think that his flirtations with fiction—the book novel and the screen plays—were frustrating not because they were fiction, but because they failed to get at the truths that the best fiction attends. His own attempt at a war novel, which Knopf was very interested in its first stages, became “too personal” when his first marriage became a war casualty. Later, he would say that fiction writers Bill Kittredge, Ivan Doig, Craig Lesley and others were giving us truths of Western history that the text books were missing.

I know too that he was proud of his work as an advisor on “Little Big Man”—one of the first screen portrayals to honor the Indian point of view, he said—and that he enjoyed working on documentaries with Ken and Ric Burns and others.  Knowing the power and pervasiveness of visual media, I think that Alvin might have been a documentarian in today’s world.

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