The joy of discovering a new-to-me author: I’d never even heard of Ivan Doig three weeks ago when a friend of mine commented on Facebook that The Whistling Season was a Kindle Daily Deal. So I checked it out, it looked interesting, and for $2, seemed worth taking a chance on. So thank you, Lee. Because I’m now a big Ivan Doig fan.
In other words, I loved this book. More than loved it. I adored it. Set in the winter of 1909-1910 in Marias Coulee, Montana, it’s the story of a family of homesteaders whose lives are turned upside down when they hire a housekeeper and get her irrepressible brother along in the bargain.
The Milliron men are muddling along as best they can after Oliver Milliron’s wife dies. They have some family nearby who are also homesteading, but with three boys between the ages of six and twelve, it’s a struggle for Oliver to keep their house clean and put decent food on the table, especially since he can’t really cook. When one of his sons spies an advertisement in a newspaper beginning “Can’t cook but doesn’t bite”, Oliver hits on the idea of hiring a housekeeper to help out. He’s sure the cooking thing will work itself out.
He and his sons are not prepared for Rose Llewellyn and her brother Morris Morgan, and neither is Marias Coulee. Rose soon whips the Milliron boys into shape and the house as well, and when the schoolmarm runs off with a travelling preacher, Oliver and the school board persuade the well-spoken Morris to step into the breach. Morrie turns out to be an inspiring choice, captivating even the more recalcitrant students as he teaches them not only their 3 R’s, but about the cosmos as well.
Oliver’s oldest son, Paul, is the narrator of this story of one special, spell-binding winter. Now charged with determining the fate of Montana’s one room schoolhouses like the one in Marias Coulee, Paul looks back fondly on how he learned about life, and love, and to love learning in the weather-beaten building now facing extinction. This is a tricky bit of narrative wizardry, since it would be easy for Paul to come across as precocious and ridiculous, but somehow young Paul seems adult without succumbing to snottiness—the adult Paul has enough control to gently poke fun at the nerdy young boy he was without making him pathetic.
No one who reads this is going to be able to resist Rose and Morrie, and it’s easy to see why Morrie’s students willing follow him down the rabbit hole time and time again. He’s a great character—ebullient, slightly preposterous, out of place in Marias Coulee, and utterly charming for all of that. I read this whole book suspecting that he was something of a humbug (I will not tell you whether he is or not, of course) and crossing my fingers that he wasn’t—much like The Wizard of Oz, you want to believe in Morrie and what he can do for you.
This is simple storytelling at its best—honest people, totally realistic, placed in a time and place that are so real you can see the “snirt” (Paul’s portmanteau word for snow+dirt) and feel the wind tearing at your hair. It’s a gentle, enjoyable book filled with wry humor and a rhythm that rises and falls the way life does. Doig has a style that’s lyrical in its easy simplicity, and his choice of words is not just thoughtful but smart—there are all these teeny jokes he sneaks in here and there that you suddenly run across and chuckle over.
Best of all, there was absolutely nothing predictable about the story—just as there’s often nothing predictable about life. This is a sweet, funny coming of age story filled with unforgettable characters and quiet moments of intensity. It was well worth the $2.