Monday, March 28, 2011
Book Review: The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig
More than 10 years ago I joined my very first book club. It was a summer-only club organized by the Women's National Book Association in Nashville, and they had an English professor there every week to speak about the book before the discussion. What inspired me to join was that the topic was Western novels. I saw that topic, and thought and thought and couldn't think of a single Western novel I'd ever read. Seemed like a gaping hole in my reading resume, so I wanted to fill it. The books I read through that book club were very cool (The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich, Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko, and Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner) so when my current book club picked The Whistling Season, I was pretty psyched.
Set in 1909-1910 in Marias Coulee, Montana, the feel of this book isn't very far off from the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. Paul Milliron and his brothers Damon and Toby go to school in a one-room schoolhouse. Their mother died last year and their father is one of the last homesteaders when this land was opened. Their father Oliver one day sees a notice in the paper, advertising the services of a housekeeper. Although she claims not to cook, the Millirons believe she can be persuaded otherwise once she gets to Marias Coulee, and so they hire her. Soon Rose Llewellyn and her brother Morrie Morgan arrive, looking out of place, but Rose soon whips the house into shape. She sticks to her guns and doesn't cook, but otherwise the situation works out well. And when the teacher runs off with an itinerant preacher, Morrie takes over the school.
Not a lot of action takes place in the book, although there are several surprises in the last 30 pages. Not so surprising as to be irritating - they have all been set up. We did have a couple of book club members who saw hints of the surprises early on but I was not one of them. The book was very atmospheric which is something I often dislike but it wasn't overdone, the writing wasn't lyrical or poetic (words that have come to symbolize overwrote writing for its own sake in my mind) but it was still evocative and the setting is almost a character in itself.
As I said in my Book Beginning post, I was confused at first why the book is told from the point of view of Paul looking back from 1957, but towards the end it all clicked for me - 1910 was the year of Haley's Comet, and 1957 was the year of Sputnik. For someone in education (Paul goes on to become the Superintendent of Schools for the state of Montana), both those events would be watershed moments. Although 1910 would have been a pivotal year in Paul's life regardless of the comet, given the events that take place. Unusually, everyone at book club liked this book! I really enjoyed it - it was a lovely and thoughtful coming-of-age story.
I bought this book at my local Indie bookstore.