Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Whistling Season, by Ivan Doig

I was out of town most of the week and have a lot of posting to catch up on. First, the Novel Conversations book for February, The Whistling Season, by Ivan Doig. Set in rural Montana in the early 1900s and 1957, The Whistling Season is narrated by Paul, the oldest son of the Milliron family. The long-serving Superintendent of Public Instruction for Montana, the Paul of 1957 faces the spectre of telling the state's rural educators that all of the one-room schoolhouses in Montana are being closed for budgetary/efficiency reasons. On the way to the meeting at which he will make this announcement, Paul decides to take a side trip to the town where he grew up, Marias Coulee. There, he indulges his recollections of a memorable year in his youth. These recollections provide the bulk of the story.

In 1909, Paul's widowed father Oliver sees an ad in the local weekly advertising a housekeeper who "can't cook but doesn't bite." Laughing, he can't resist responding. Soon Oliver, Paul, and the younger sons--Damon and Toby--are waiting for Rose Llewelyn's arrival. When she steps off the train, she brings along a surprise, her brother Morris, who seems to be something of a dandy, as well as a fount of information--perhaps not the ideal Montana homesteader. Soon, however, Morris's knowledge comes in handy, as the schoolteacher elopes with a tent preacher; Morris steps into take her place, and the students respond, even the rather dull eighth-graders.

Doig paints a lovely picture of the Milliron family and the challenging but beautiful environment in which they live. Not everything that happens to them is positive: the boys face bullies, Toby is injured when a horse steps on his foot, their dryland farm needs rain desperately. Yet their lives are full of love and connection--and the one-room school where Morris reigns is central to those connections.

Doig's writing is evocative--he often refers in interviews to "the poetry under the prose"--and captures a way of life that is no more. I found the ending unsatisfying, however--it felt like Doig got to a certain point, said to himself, "Well, I better end this," and threw in a couple of not particularly twists to try to satisfy the reader. I also didn't see the point of the 1957 frame he put around the primary story; perhaps he thought it provided more opportunity to provide reflections on the value of local schools to rural communities, but that point was well-made without the adult Paul's voice. Despite these quibbles, I enjoyed The Whistling Season and would recommend it, particularly for those nostalgic about rural American life.  

Favorite passages:
. . . childhood is the one story that stands by itself in every soul.

My books already threatened to take over my part of the room and keep on going . . . whatever cargoes of words I could lay my hands on I gave safe harbor.

The circumference of love depends on the angle you see it from . . .

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