Saturday, July 19, 2008


The Whistling Season, Ivan Doig, Harcourt Inc, 2006, 345 pp

I had heard about this author. He writes about Montana in the homesteading days of the early 20th century. And I liked this book a great deal, though some say his earlier books are even better. He reminds me of Wallace Stegner but he is less ponderous-that's a good thing. He does not judge his characters.

The Whistling Season could be a Young Adult novel. Paul is the oldest of three sons and tells the story, looking back on his thirteenth year. His father, Oliver, is a homesteader who had lost his wife and the boys' mother a year ago to a medical emergency. Oliver decides to hire a housekeeper from an ad in the paper. Rose and her brother Morris arrive from Wisconsin and bring change to the area.

These two interlopers are surrounded by a certain amount of mystery and Doig does not reveal their secrets until the last few pages, so all through the story, though they each do wondrous deeds that improve life for Paul and his family, there is a certain uneasiness simmering just beneath.

All the characters are fabulously created. Paul and his brothers attend a one-room schoolhouse complete with bullies, buddies, lug heads and scholars as well as annoying girls. Morris becomes the school teacher and being well-educated as well as the flamboyant character he is, he teaches like his hair is on fire. My favorite parts of the book were the schoolhouse scenes.

It all ends happily with a sense of uprightness tempered by wisdom about people and the vagaries of the human heart. Doig has recreated a time we shall never see again in America and yet the juxtaposition of goodwill and values with lawlessness and a certain anarchy is still the essence of our country's character.

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