Ivan Doig, 2006, 345 p.
The Whistling Season is a kinder, gentler novel free of our current social obsessions and self-involvement. Modern inventions like depression and angst, or narcissism and promiscuous (and often ridiculous) sex are refreshingly absent from The Whistling Season. I’d like to emphasize “refreshingly,” because it seems like all I’ve been reading lately is one self-involved novel after another. I’m pretty sure that my current reading and thinking about all this relentless “me, me, me” stuff is starting to damage the already underdeveloped compassion centers of my brain. Even though I’ve been dreading this possibility, I’ve been reaching the point where I’m starting to seriously consider rereading such saccharine fare as Little Women and Little House on the Prairie and Stuart Little again. In case you are unaware of this, books with the word “little” in the title often tend to be more sweet and innocent than other books, because littleness is cute. Maybe I should have kept this largely unknown bit of information to myself. Now that the cat’s out of the bag, desperate authors everywhere might start inserting “little” into their titles so their novels will sell to other disgruntled readers like myself. I think some authors have already figured this out. I think Thomas Berger did this with Little Big Man because it was such a difficult read.
As I was saying, The Whistling Season is a kinder, gentler novel. It’s about a widowed farmer and his three sons in Montana in 1909 and 1910. The father, Oliver Milliron, hires a housekeeper, Rose Llewellyn, through the mail to help keep his house in order while he works in the fields. She arrives with her brother, Morris Morgan, in tow. Morris is a brilliant man, and because of this, he’s eventually pressed into service as the schoolteacher of the area’s one-room schoolhouse. A substantial portion of the book focuses on Morris and the school. This is a fun novel with exceptional and intelligent characters, and they were a pleasant surprise to me. I enjoy it when a Western author endows his down-to-earth characters with wit and brains. A person doesn’t have to be well-educated or employed in some fancy job to be smart!
There were two things about The Whistling Season which fascinated me–the novel’s focus on Halley’s Comet and one-room schoolhouses. I had forgotten that Mark Twain (Nov. 30, 1845 – Apr. 21, 1910) was born and died when the comet was in view. He said: “I came in with Halley’s comet in 1835. It’s coming again next year (1910), and I expect to go out with it. The Almighty has said no doubt, ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’ ” What a wonderful humorist he was!
About one-room schoolhouses—my Great Aunt Florrie taught in one in Western Colorado before she got married. She lived in teacher’s quarters behind the building, and, according to my father, she loved the job. One-room schools were often the hub of small communities. Meetings, dances and other social gatherings were held in these buildings. It’s kind of sad that they’re no longer in use.
I’m so glad I had the chance to read this lovely novel. Mr. Doig is, in my opinion, part of that elite group of excellent Western writers which includes Kent Haruf, Norman MacLean and Wallace Stegner. Hooray!