Thursday, May 25, 2006

Doig Shines in Newest Novel -- The Whistling Season

49. The Whistling Season, Ivan Doig. Fiction, 5-25, p. 345

Imagine a novel in which the sense of time and place are as vivid and as realized as the characters. And the characters are so neatly drawn that you feel as if you could sit down at the kitchen table with them, across the expanse of a faded oilcloth, one with blue windmills on white squares, and share coffee and conversation.

If you can imagine this, you have sense of Ivan Doig’s newest book, The Whistling Season. Often categorized, and dismissed, as a Western writer, Doig is among our finest fiction writers today, and this may be the book that secures him a wider audience. If his most recent works, such as Prairie Nocturne and Mountain Time, were not of the caliber of his earliest efforts, The Whistling Season is Doig at his finest. It recalls such extraordinary novels as Dancing at the Rascal Fair and Ride With me, Mariah Montana.

Oliver Milliron and his three motherless sons – Paul, Damon and Toby – live on Montana’s Marias Coulee where Oliver is a dry-land farmer. The oldest son, Paul, a precocious 13-year-old, is the novel’s narrator.

The story begins when Oliver’s curiosity is aroused by a help wanted ad for a housekeeper that promises, Can’t Cook, But Doesn’t Bite. Oliver determines that a housekeeper may be exactly what’s needed to bring order to his tumultuous household.

The housekeeper, Rose Llewellyn arrives, her brother, Morris Morgan, in tow. Rose quickly restores order to the Milliron household, while Morris – Morrie – does the same at the one-room schoolhouse the boys attend. He is enlisted as the schoolteacher after the current eacher, the unattractive Miss Trent, unexpectedly elopes with a traveling preacher.

Most of the novels unfolds within the walls of the schoolhouse. If that sounds as if it’s too narrow a geography for a novel, under Doig’s care, it’s not. The schoolhouse and its grounds emerge as a world complete unto itself.

Doig sings the praises of the one-room schoolhouse, but he’s never pedantic or preachy. His greatest skill as a novelist is that he values a good story and knows how to tell one.

If it doesn’t make you laugh outright, The Whistling Season will conjure more than its share of knowing grins. And it can, at times, generate as much warmth as the pot-bellied stove that was a fixture in the one-room schoolhouse Doig so fondly re-creates.

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