Saturday, March 20, 2010

22. The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig

"Ivan Doig writes about the American West in prose that reads like poetry. His keen eye for physical detail is as sharp as ever in his latest novel, yet the element that truly drives the book is humor.

Widower Oliver Milliron instructs his 13-year-old son, Paul, to read a newspaper want ad to the rest of the family:

"Can't Cook But Doesn't Bite."

It's an ad for a non-cooking housekeeper who wants work in 1909 Montana. The Millirons -- three boys and their dad -- could really use a cook, but Dad is drawn by the humor and refuses to believe a woman exists who can't cook. So he gets Paul to draft an answer to the ad.

Immediately, the school-yard antics begin. Youngest brother Toby can't keep his mouth shut, so everyone knows the Millirons are getting a housekeeper they've never laid eyes on. How old and ugly will she be? Will she henpeck them?

The teasing continues even after the very pretty Rose Llewellyn arrives, unexpectedly bringing along her highly educated brother, Morris.

Eventually, the school-yard teasings of the Milliron boys turn into a contest, a horse race where the riders face the wrong end of the steed. The prize for the Millirons is an end to the teasing.

It's one of the funniest scenes in the book, but that's only the beginning. Writing about kids turns almost everything into an opportunity for humor because of the way children's small fears and dramas reach magnificent proportions in their own minds.

When the teacher of that one-room school runs off with a tent-revival preacher, the only available choice to fill the post is Morris. He may not be conventional, but he's inspiring.

When the school inspector announces his imminent arrival, threatening to close the school if the students don't perform adequately on standardized tests, everyone, including unflappable Morris, gets the jitters.

Doig populates his work with colorful characters, even the minor ones. Perhaps the most colorful this time around is Aunt Eunice Schricker, a pinch-faced complainer who sends the boys into fits of dread every time their father forces them to pay her a call.

She sits around knitting lace doilies until the parlor "looks snowed on." Doig's humor and keen eye extend even to the smallest details, not just to the sweeping Montana landscape.

Only one part of the book seems a bit weak -- the climactic scene where Brose Turley, a violent trapper, and his son confront Morris. The scene itself is tense enough, but the reason for Brose's attack seems too philosophical for this man who ostensibly does nothing but drink and kill things.

Doig's skillful framing device gives this novel a bittersweet air. The action centers on the children, but it's told from Paul's adult eye. He's now the state superintendent of schools, threatened with the possible need to close the one-room schools such as the one where he was educated." 
By Rebecca Sodergren, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Since my computer crashed a couple of weeks ago and I'm four book reviews behind, I'm using this great review of Doig's wonderful book, The Whistling Season.  This is my third Doig book, and I'm a huge fan.  While English Creek remains my favorite, this book is also a fun and interesting read.  I just love the way he uses words.  I agree with the above review that the scene involving Brose Turley seemed lacking, but I also didn't care for a twist at the end of the book.  It seemed contrived and unnecessary to me.  Other than that, I loved this book and welcome it as an addition to my library of keepers. 

Rating:  4.5
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  1. My mom raved about this book and I've had it on my radar ever since. I have several novels (and one memoir) by Doig, but I've yet to give his works a try. I may have to start with this one.

  2. I have three of Doig's books on my shelf because my SIL loves him. After this great review I am ready to really dig in and enjoy! Thanks for a great review.