Friday, April 8, 2011

Review: The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig

The one room schoolhouse is an iconic image of the prairie, one which rural farmers' children traveled for miles to attend. Paul Milliron is the State Superintendent of Montana's schools charged with closing down some of the last one room schoolhouses in the state now that the advent of Sputnik has focused the whole nation on the state of math and science education and accelerated the school consolidation movement. Paul himself is the product of one of the schools he must now shut down. As he travels to his childhood home and toward his scheduled meeting with the intent only of softening the blow, he finds himself remembering a seminal year in his education.

The year that Paul is 12, his father sees an advertisement for a housekeeper who can't cook but doesn't bite. He hires Rose Llewellyn to come tend to the house and his boys, who have been missing a woman's care ever since their mother died. The advent of Rose and her dapper and very erudite brother Morrie in the Milliron home, and indeed this dry land farming community, turns out to be of momentous import. Morrie assumes the schoolteacher's position in the tiny schoolhouse that serves the surrounding farms, engaging and challenging the children far beyond anything ever expected of them before.

The characters in the story are complex and interesting and their actions, even when they are surprising, remain true to their cores. They are no-frills, reflective of the landscape in which they live. The slow unfolding of the story of that pivotal year is carefully measured and only occasionally interrupted by the older Paul's thoughts on his upcoming and unlooked for meeting to close the school that served him so well in his youth and offered him so much the year that Morrie and Rose moved to Marais Coulee. Doig's skill in painting place and atmosphere shines throughout the novel as does his rending of tensions and loyaties in this place still being settled. The unembellished writing makes the story accessible and unsentimental. But unembellished doesn't mean that there are not many riches here. The depiction of family, knowledge, and learning is plain and true and real. And while it took a little effort to get into the rhythm of the story at the beginning, I recommend perseverance. Doig has a given the reader a gift with this novel chronicling a time not so long past but certainly disappearing forever.

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