A native and long time resident of Montana, Mr. Doig worked as a ranch hand before earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in journalism from Northwestern University. He later went on to earn a Ph.D. in history from the University of Washington, but returned to Montana to write.
His 1979 debut novel, This House of Sky: Landscapes of the Western Mind, was a finalist for a National Book Award, and in 2007 the Center for the American West awarded him with the prestigious Wallace Stegner Award, given to an individual who has made a sustained contribution to the cultural identity of the West through literature, art, history, lore, or an understanding of the West. He also was the recipient of the Western Literature Association’s lifetime Distinguished Achievement award, as well as numerous awards from the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association.
Riverhead Books, which published many of Mr. Doig’s books, had this to say about his career:
Doig believed that ordinary people deserve to have their stories told, and he did that in fact and fiction, beginning with “This House of Sky”, a memoir of his own upbringing in Montana; it attracted a wide readership and was a finalist for the National Book Award. He later wrote a second memoir, “Heart Earth”, and another book of nonfiction, but it is for his novels that he became enduringly read. An early novel, “The Sea Runners”, told the story of four indentured servants escaping Russian Alaska in the mid-nineteenth century. With “English Creek”, in 1984, Doig introduced the Two Medicine Country, an imagined region based upon the Montana landscape where he came of age. That novel also introduced the McCaskill clan, who reappeared in the two that followed, “Dancing at the Rascal Fair” and “Ride with Me, Mariah Montana”, the trilogy spanning a century of Montana history.
The world he’d created endured– the Two Medicine Country is the setting for the majority of his novels – as did the habit of plucking characters from previous novels and reintroducing them sometimes several books – and in fictional terms, several decades – down the road. The 2006 novel “The Whistling Season”, a New York Times bestseller, about a mail-order housekeeper who comes west to work for a widower and his motherless sons, debuted a favorite character, Morrie Morgan, an itinerant charmer who subsequently appeared in two further novels, “Work Song” (2010) and “Sweet Thunder” (2013), his misadventures drawing Doig’s settings south to Butte, Montana, and the conflicts between the behemoth Anaconda Copper Mining Company and the beleaguered miners in the early part of the twentieth century.
Two late novels, “The Bartender’s Tale” (2012) and the yet-to-be-published “Last Bus to Wisdom”, come as close to autobiography as Doig ever got in his fiction, in that they were inspired by circumstances out of his childhood: his father’s habit of taking Doig along as a boy to the saloons where he liked to hire on haying crews in the first case, and in the second, an episode where Doig, who lost his mother at the age of six and was raised by his father and his ranch cook grandmother, was sent east to Wisconsin for a summer when both adults encountered medical difficulties.
Mr. Doig’s final novel, Last Bus to Wisdom, will be published on August 18,2015. He is survived by his wife, Carol, a professor of journalism who aided her husband in research and editing for many years.