Yes, it will appear that I have become obsessed with books about the American West, and maybe I have. Since I’ve read every Wallace Stegner novel at least once (don’t ask how many times I’ve read Crossing to Safety and Angle of Repose) and most Willa Cather – and please don’t forget my rave reviews of The Sister Brothers and Blood Meridian - I’d say this cat is out of the bag. Somehow, however, I’ve missed Ivan Doig until the GoodReads’ data base noticed I had been on a Kent Haruf jag and recommended The Whistling Season.
I have to start being more conscientious about my GoodReads account.
The Whistling Season is the story of the Millirons family – father, Oliver, and his young sons Paul, Damon, and Toby. The book opens in 1909, shortly after Mrs. Milliron has died, leaving the family to struggle on alone on their farm in rural Montana. Oliver is browsing the want ads, hoping to find a housekeeper, when he comes across an ad reading “CAN’T COOK BUT DOESN’T BITE.” This introduces Mrs. Rose Llewellyn of Minnesota to the Millirons, along with an unexpected traveling companion, her brother Morris Morgan.
The plot, which I won’t divulge, is fairly straightforward. The pleasure in reading The Whistling Season is getting to know the characters and the setting. Please don’t be put off by this – entertaining characters in an interesting setting are more than enough to carry this charming story.
Much of the action takes place in the rural one-room school that the boys attend – Toby in first grade, Damon in sixth, and Paul in seventh. The school is a microcosm of the small community of Marias Coulee, Montana, and we are able to watch as the values and mores of that town are played out throughout the book.
But Doig has deftly selected to frame this story with short sections that move us into the future: 1957, when Sputnik has rocked the US confidence in being the best and the brightest, and education is suddenly seen in a new light. At this time, Paul Milliron is a grown man and is State Superintendent of Schools for the State of Montana. It is his responsibility to announce that Montana is closing its rural schools and bussing the students to larger schools. Not to worry, parents are assured – no student will be bussed more than a one and a half hour ride each direction.
On the eve of this decision, he has returned to Marias Coulee one more time to reflect on the impact that little school had on his life, and it is actually “adult Paul” who is telling the story. This simple device allows Doig to inform his narrator from a remove that a child – even a very bright child – couldn’t pull off. It works in the same way that the adult “Kevin Arnold”, narrator of “The Wonder Years,” can tell us young Kevin’s story without making him seem unnaturally precocious. As “adult” Paul relives the role of the school in his childhood, aware that its fate – and that of every rural school along with it – rests in his hands, he realizes,
Forever and a day could go by, and that feeling will never leave me. Of knowing in that instant, the central power of that country school in all our lives.
I was completely charmed by this book and its cast of characters. It took me back to a time past that may be idealized, may be romanticized, but touches a core of nostalgia for a simpler, more straightforward life than we seem to be able to manage today.