Back in 2009 I read a book which became a personal favorite, The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig. I reread it in 2015 when my book club selected it for a monthly meeting. I listened to the audiobook both times and found myself completely taken by the setting, the characters, and the plot. But for some odd reason, I never reviewed the book after either reading. I am correcting that error in judgment now but in order to facilitate the writing of a super overdue review I went ahead and reread the book again, this time reading the print edition.
First, let me say a word or two about the author, Ivan Doig. Doig, who died in 2015, wrote mostly about life in the West, specifically his native Montana. The Whistling Season is set in Eastern Montana on a homesteaded dry farm and its surrounding community. Doig's stories tell about life of the common man, doing common but essential jobs. Doig won many awards and much acclaim during his writing career. About his writing, Doig said,
"I don't think of myself as a 'Western' writer". To me, language—the substance on the page, that poetry under the prose—is the ultimate 'region,' the true home, for a writer. If I have any creed that I wish you as readers, necessary accomplices in this flirtatious ceremony of writing and reading, will take with you from my pages, it'd be this belief of mine that writers of caliber can ground their work in specific land and lingo and yet be writing of that larger country: life."
That is certainly what The Whistling Season is about: life on a remote farm in 1910 for a farmer, Oliver Milliron, and his three sons: Paul, Damon, and Toby. It is also about the small community whose life centers around the rural, one-room school house.
The book opens in the late 1950s with Paul Milliron, the narrator, now the Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction, looking back on his life in 1910 when he and his brothers attended school in a one-room school house. "When I visit the back corners of my life again after so long a time, littlest things jump out first." He is standing in his old home recalling memories from that year a long, long ago but many of those memories are as clear as day. "If I have learned anything in a lifetime spent overseeing schools, it is that childhood is the one story that stands by itself in every soul. "
Memories flood back from that pivotal year, starting when his father, a widower since his wife died the year before, answers an ad in the newspaper for a housekeeper who "Can't Cook but Doesn't Bite." Rose Llewellyn arrives at the train station in Marius Coulee to start her new job, with her brother, Morris Morgan. Morrie ends up stepping in as the teacher when the previous teacher runs off in the middle of the school year. Though he has never taught before, he is a natural at igniting student's imaginations.
So what is it that I like so much about The Whistling Season?
First the characters:
- Paul, the oldest of the boys who is so clever and aching for intellectual stimulation just comes alive under Morrie's tutelage. We get to know him as both a thirteen-year-old and as a grown man.
- Damon, the middle child who loves everything about sports and action. He is always rearing to go.
- Toby, the sweet youngest brother who is so proud of his perfect attendance and loves his dog, Houdini.
- Oliver, the father who is wise and wants the best for his boys.
- Rose, who comes in the house every morning whistling her happy tunes and finds her way into everyone's heart.
- Morrie, the creativity, energy, and intellect of this man is what we all wish we'd had in our teachers over the years.
- Cast of school children, all named and friends of the Milliron boys
- Brose Turley and his son Eric, the villain of the story. Don't all good stories have one?
Secondly the setting, especially the one-room school house in the middle of the dryland farming community. As Paul is reflecting on it's importance in his life from his vantage point looking back and what is being asked of him as the School Superintendent, to consolidate these smalls schools and bus the children to attend schools in larger towns, he says,
What is being asked, no, demanded of me is not only the forced extinction of the little schools. It will also slowly kill those rural neighborhoods...No schoolhouse to send their children to. No schoolhouse for a Saturday-night dance. No schoolhouse for election day; for the Grange meeting; for the 4-H club; for the quilting bee; for the pinochle tournament; for the reading groups; for any of the gatherings that are bloodstream of community...Whatever the twist of fate, I am the product of what I am being asked to do away with. If Marius Coulee didn't hold full sessions in the school of life, I don't know where it ever is to be found (294-5).
What else? Halley's Comet. Wrong-end-to horse races. Tent revivals. Arrow head collections and buffalo digs. Dog piles and snowball fights. Latin lessons and so much more.
What is it in The Whistling Season that really speaks to me? Is it because both my grandmother and Don's grandfather attended small, rural schools when they were young so I feel a small connection to them? That could be part of the attraction. Or maybe, is it that I was a teacher for over thirty years and I know how hard it is to keep students engaged and active in their own education? I certainly appreciated the almost magical way that Morrie connected with his students and creatively found solutions to nagging problems. I suspect the book really speaks to me on two levels: the adult level where there are problems to be solved and solutions to be found, and the child level where there is life to be lived and joy to be found. I love recalling my early days and enjoy telling stories which helps keep those memories of my past alive. As Paul says, "Even when it stands vacant the past is never empty."
As you can tell from this long overdue review, I love The Whistling Season and I suspect you will, too.
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