Convinced that his low count of wolf pelts has something to do with an odd trail of light in the midnight sky, Brose Turley holds Morrie Morgan at knifepoint and demands, “The world ending in fire? Is it?”
Who among us can blame Turley? His superstitious mind may be on to something. After all, things were swell in 1909 in eastern Montana until this rakish schoolteacher named Morgan arrived, bringing with him a fancy-pants vocabulary, brass knuckles, knowledge of Halley’s Comet and, worse, some unmanly spectacles to help Turley’s willfully ignorant son learn to read. Now things are out of joint. Someone will have to pay.
In The Whistling Season, Montana native Ivan Doig’s 11th book, that someone turns out to be not Mr. Morgan but rather Paul Milliron, Morgan’s most willing pupil. Forty-eight years after his days as a seventh-grader in Morgan’s one-room schoolhouse, Milliron, now the superintendent of Montana schools, is charged with bringing the state’s young boys up to snuff in math and science. How to begin? Close all the one-room schoolhouses.
Loathe to raze the sorts of places where he was formed, Milliron nevertheless decides to initiate the purge with the school he attended in Marias Coulee. Driving home in his state-issued car, Milliron recalls October of 1909 as the last time he was at such a loose end. Aged 13, he lived on a homestead with his father and two younger brothers. Their mother had recently died. Obvious emotional problems notwithstanding, the real troubles in the Milliron house are the accumulating dust and the inedible meals. On a whim, Paul’s father responds to a classified ad with the headline “Can’t Cook But Doesn’t Bite.” The catchy phrase comes from Rose Llewellyn, a Minneapolis widow who pledges sound morals and “A-1” service in all other domestic tasks. Milliron reassures his hungry and skeptical eldest son, “These want ads, you know, Paul—there’s always some give to them.” As luck would have it, the “give” works in the other direction as well. Fetching and brisk with her blue satin traveling dress and firm handshake, Rose greets her new employer by asking for a three-month advance and introducing the family to her extravagantly mustachioed brother—Morrie Morgan—who will need a job and a place to sleep. After failing as a lumberjack Morgan takes over as schoolmarm when the despised Miss Trent runs off with a preacher.
You’ll often hear Doig compared to giants of Western prose such as Wallace Stegner and A.B. Guthrie, masters whose work has defined an entire genre of American literature. Such lofty praise is all well and good, but it can deter as many new readers as it attracts. If you’re among the thus-far deterred, it’s time to snatch Doig’s eighth novel from the shelf ($25 be damned), not because we may have a legend in our midst but because what we have is a flinty working man who’s great at his job. Doig is an old pro, an expert storyteller. And I watch him work much the way I’d watch a bent-backed woodworker fashion cabinets.
A coming-of-age schoolyard novel is a minefield of clichés. Common in this genre are young love, schoolyard bullies, jeopardized budgets, unorthodox teachers, secret handshakes, fussy administrators and at some point an auditorium of rapt parents—in short, all manner of potential hokum we’ve seen a million times and promised ourselves we won’t fall for again. Thankfully, Doig never asks us to. Sure, much of the above finds its way into the book—this is middle school after all—but Doig surprises at every turn.
Like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, Morgan summons profundities at will. Held at knifepoint, he tells Brose Turley, “Light is the desire of the universe…The impulse to illumination somehow is written into the heavenly order of things. The sun, stars, they all carry light, that seems to be their mission in being.” Earnest and pedantic as this is, the improbable speech and the implausibly melodramatic tête-à-tête in which it’s spoken serve a greater purpose: an inspired, downright cool un-Hollywood ending that will not be disclosed here.
We are carried to that end by Doig’s flirtation with but ultimate refusal to succumb to nostalgia and sentiment, and by his understated humor, which takes the bite out of the air in what could easily have become, without the occasional joke, a solemn novel. Describing his gaunt, curmudgeonly Aunt Eunice, Paul says, “Thus far the 20th Century had no effect on her except to make her look more like a leftover daguerreotype.” Later, upon meeting Rose, he shares his surprise by saying, “Aunt Eunice always excepted, in our experience widows were massive.”
Milliron’s mischievous wit and Morgan’s well-harnessed flair give a modest elegance to the entire book. One could quibble with some of Doig’s minor choices—at times Rose and Morgan compete a bit too much for the novel’s center stage, with Rose retreating too far into the background in the middle portion, and there are moments when the text lags like a school year—but these smudges leave only a faint trace. They do not so much as scuff the varnish on Doig’s handiwork.
Ivan Doig reads from and signs copies of The Whistling Season at Fact & Fiction Tuesday, July 11, at 7 PM.