Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #71: The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig
A pure delight to read, Doig’s book is an evocative tribute to a by-gone era, that of the one-room schoolhouse in the turn-of-the-century Midwestern United States. Doig’s writing is a marvel of simplicity while dealing with themes of complexity, a rare enough talent nowadays, and his humor is as droll as his wit is razor-sharp. The story is told from the standpoint of Paul Milliron, a highly gifted thirteen-year-old farmboy living on the wind- and drought-ravaged prairie of Montana in 1910. The novel centers on Paul’s family, which lost its mother to a burst appendix one year earlier and which is immersed in chaos at the beginning of their story. A humorous newspaper ad offering housekeeping duties—“Can’t Cook But Doesn’t Bite”—appeals to the self-educated father and his motherless boys, and the elegant Rose Llewellyn and her dapper brother Morris Morgan arrive like a whirlwind in the drab little farm community of Marias Coulee, and change lives forever.
Although many have described The Whistling Season as a coming-of-age tale, I think that misses the point entirely. Yes, Paul is the responsible eldest brother, a fanatic reader and sponge for knowledge who serves as both a critical support for his overworked father and as our eye on events both within and outside the community. And yes, we watch him grow and thrive and grapple with issues beyond his years. But we also get an insider’s view of what life at this time was like in a drylander community dedicated to pulling crops out of impoverished land, with both hopes and fears for the vast irrigation project that promises to change their lives. We discover that many of America’s farmers were highly-literate, science-minded and glass-half-full kind of people. We encounter farm children who, given half a chance at a real education, were able to transform their lives and the lives of those around them. And we discover that the one-room schoolhouse more often than not served as the very heart and soul of what helped to shape America over the century to come.
Drafted into service as the school’s one teacher when his predecessor elopes with a traveling preacher, Rose’s city slicker brother—a graduate of Chicago University and unstoppable fount of knowledge historical, literary, geographical, astronomical, linguistical, and mathematical—uses the approach of Haley’s Comet to make his unorthodox lessons come alive for the children who range in age from 6 to 18, and whom we come to know intimately through Paul’s sharp eyes. We sense that Morris Morgan is an enigma, as is Rose herself, but we don’t care as they bring life back to the Milliron family, inspire its children, spice up the community, even if they ultimately have to face their past. But in the meantime, we get to go on an unforgettable joyride, as rich in life lessons as in the classroom kind.