Ivan Doig has been called "the reigning master of new Western
literature." And THE WHISTLING SEASON, his latest book, certainly
confirms his writing stature.
The story is told from the point of view of Paul Milliron,
currently the Montana state superintendent of schools. He has been
delegated to decide the fate of the state's last rural schools. As
he struggles with the decisions he must make, Paul recalls his
childhood and the one-room schoolhouse he attended in Marias
Coulee, Montana in the fall of 1909.
Paul's father Oliver has been recently widowed. The family,
including three boys --- Paul, Damon and Tobey --- are struggling
to keep their daily chores done. This includes cooking,
housekeeping, attending to their father's farming duties and going
to school. It's too much for all of them, so Oliver decides to
advertise for a housekeeper. When a woman applies with the
statement, "Can't cook but doesn't bite," she is hired anyway,
sight unseen. None of the Millirons quite believe that she can't
The widow Rose Llewellyn arrives in Montana with an unexpected
guest: her brother, the well-educated but quirky Morris Morgan.
Both Rose and Morris are hard workers. Rose knows how to
clean a house through and through, and Morgan works at any job that
Oliver can find him --- including cleaning out a chicken
For the boys, school life is never without its challenges. When
Paul Milliron slugs the school bully, Eddie Turley, Damon comes up
with a plan to prevent a fight. He suggests a horse race. The loser
is to leave the other boy alone for the rest of the year. The only
catch is that the riders will sit backwards on the horse. Paul wins
the race and all is well, until their father finds out. As
punishment, Paul will help Morris stack the wood piles for their
elderly Aunt. During their work time together, Paul and Morris
begin a relationship of mentor to student.
When the schoolteacher runs off to get married to a traveling
minister, Paul's father talks Morris into taking on the job. As
Morris engages the class, the reader is engaged in the minds of the
students, the Milliron home and life in rural Montana in the early
1900s. Morris also tutors Paul in Latin after school, which deepens
their relationship. His teaching abilities are tested when the
inspector comes to visit.
A horse crushes Tobey's foot and Rose moves into the house to help
Oliver take care of him. The closeness leads to romance between
Rose and Paul's father, and Paul figures out the puzzle of why Rose
and Morris left the midwest to journey to Montana.
Ivan Doig evokes the sense of the Old West as few writers can. His
depiction and description of Montana gives the reader the breadth
and depth of life on the land a hundred years ago. The reader
travels back to the early 1900s with Paul, as he revisits his past
to choose what to do with Montana's last rural schools in the
Reviewed by Jennifer McCord on January 24, 2011
The Whistling Season