Last Bus to Wisdom by Ivan Doig

TitleLast Bus to Wisdom
AuthorIvan Doig
FinishedSeptember 1, 2021

Unbelievable, and bordering on preposterous, I still found myself turning the pages hours on end. In the early 1950’s Donal is living in Montana (it’s an Ivan Doig novel, so of course) with his grandmother who needs surgery. He has to board a Greyhound bus bound to Wisconsin to live with his great aunt Kate for at least the summer. Donal has many adventures on the long “dog bus” ride. Kate is a horrible, horrible person but Donal finds some solace with Kate’s husband Herman:

“Whatever the travels of his tongue, I was finding this big husky open-faced man to be the one thing about Wisconsin that I felt vaguely comfortable with, despite his evident quirks and odd appearance. In most ways, he was homely as a pickle.

p 150

Kate is irritated with Donal and finally sends him home before his grandmother has recovered. When he arrives, he will be “skating on thin ice over the bottomless depth of the orphanage”. [p 360] Lo and behold Herman shows up at the bus station and the two embark on another bus adventure. 

This book reminds me of “English Creek”, and “The Bartender’s Tale”, and “Dancing at the Rascal Fair”.  Like the first two, this novel is a boy’s coming of age story. As in “The Bartender’s Tale”, the protagonist spends time living with an aunt; in addition, the boys in the two books are incredibly precocious and happy endings are dealt out to most everyone. Doig’s “Dancing at the Rascal Fair” is  my favorite of all his books. The first chapters where Rob and Angus are travelling by ship from Scotland to America are riveting. While not up to par with that story, Donal’s initial trip on the dog bus recalls that earlier novel.

Although one can see the happy ending (if not the details) a thousand miles away I still found myself enjoying the journey as I turned page after page. It’s not great literature where we learn some great truth about our human living condition, it’s a delightful read. Herman is my favorite character and make the read worthwhile; but many of the secondary characters are rather flat. If you want to dive into Ivan Doig, I recommend starting with the more realistic “Dancing at the Rascal Fair” and “English Creek.” If you just want a fun adventure, give this a try.

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