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Traveling, Cooking, Reading, and Trains

The Whistling Season
Author: Ivan Doig
Type: Fiction
Finished: March 28, 2019
Rating: ★★★


Image from Amazon

As the novel opens, Paul, who is now the Montana state superintendent of schools, returns to the one room school house he loved and reflects on his seventh grade year that propelled his course in life. Paul is the oldest of three brothers living on a Montana homestead near Marias Coulee in the first decade of the 20th century. His mother had died a few years earlier and one night his father’s attention is caught by an ad in the newspaper by a woman who is offering housekeeping services: “Can’t cook but doesn’t bite”. Thus they send for Rose. After wiring an advance to get to Montana from Minnesota, she unexpectedly shows up with her brother Morrie.

Their meeting at the depot was intriguing :

“In fact, I had noticed Father give a double look as if there must be more of her somewhere.” [p 31]

And of Morrie:

“He was lightly built, and an extraordinary amount of him was mustache.” [p 33]

After a somewhat uneven start Morrie winds up being Paul’s Latin tutor. Rose is a tireless worker and soon has the house in order even if she does refuse to cook. It is enjoyable to follow the family’s life for the year.  The novel centers on the homestead and that “nearby” one room schoolhouse with occasional trips out to the Big Ditch irrigation project. There are memorable characters here including the school bully Eddie Turley and his imposing father Brose. But mostly we are intrigued by Morrie and Rose’s background. Paul finds out more and more about them and finally pieces much of it together. This is Ivan Doig’s strength: slowly uncovering a mystery with some steps creating more questions than answers.

I’ve enjoyed my recent sting of reading novels about the western homesteads and small towns in the first half of the 20th century.  I enjoyed Doig’s The Bartender’s Tale but thought it leaned toward juvenile fiction in that the children were so clever and happy endings were handed out to everyone. In this novel we can guess much of what will happen. But not everything. The ending is more mixed, but much brighter –  and less realistic – than, say, The Tie That Binds by Kent Haruf which covers another homestead around the same time. But realism isn’t Doig’s purpose; I suppose I shouldn’t judge the book by comparing it to Haruf’s novels.

Regardless, Ivan Doig’s does bring that era to life. His prose is touching and keeps me coming back to his novels. I adore the adult Paul standing at the schoolhouse and looking around the prairie.

“Perhaps that pattern drew my eye to what I had viewed every day of my school life but never until then truly registered; the trails in the grass that radiated as many directions as there were homesteads with children, all converging to that schoolyard spot where I stood unnaturally alone. Forever and a day could go by, and that feeling will never leave me. Of knowing, in that instant, the central power of that countryt school in all our lives.” [p 120]

I recommend this novel as an entertaining read. I suggest starting with this before The Bartender’s Tale. Morrie’s adventures are detailed in a couple of Ivan Doig’s later novels including Work Song, which I will report on next.

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