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Monday, June 13, 2011

The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig

This is a somewhat sweet, old fashioned story.  We start out in 1950 with Paul Milliron, a school superintendent charged with the duty of closing down the old one-room schoolhouses out in the countryside of Eastern Montana.  As Paul worries over this onerous task, he flashes back in time to when he was a 13-year-old boy, and just such a schoolhouse meant the world to him.  His mother had died not too long ago, and his father Oliver was now raising Paul and his two brothers on their homestead.  Oliver, overwhelmed with raising his three sons alone and running a dryland ranch,  spies an advertisement in the newspaper.  A housekeeper looking for work has written a witty ad that starts with "Can't cook, won't bite."  They of course hire the writer of this ad, Rose.  Rose is full of surprises, beginning right from the moment she steps off the train, resplendent in a satin dress.  Rose has inexplicably brought along her brother Morrie, who eventually becomes the sole teacher of the one-room schoolhouse.  This book is really the adventure of childhood in the turn-of-the-century West, complete with horse races, revival meetings, Sunday suppers with the family and hunting for Indian arrowheads.  Rose and Morrie bring flash and excitement to the Milliron family, arriving in tandem with Halley's Comet.  Paul is mature for his age and perhaps this is why he's asked to keep secrets that trouble his dreams at night.  He literally learns a new language, helps his Dad navigate being a widow, mentors his younger brothers and comes of age in doing so.  The only parts I thought were overdone were Paul's nightmares; a little would have gone a long way on that front.  But if you want to saddle up and ride back to 1909 Montana, to a simpler place and time, this might be the book for you.   If you end up liking this book or this genre, I also recommend Here Lies the Librarian by Richard Peck.  Also, the PBS docu/reality series Frontier House (available on netflix).  And, The Wilder Life, Wendy McClure's memoir of trying to understand her childhood obsession with The Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder.   Finally, for a starker look at life on a Montana dryland ranch (this one is set in the 1940's), Winter Wheat by Mildred Walker.

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