On the Shelf: The Whistling Season

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The Whistling Season picks up the reader from wherever he is in time and place and plants him firmly on the wind-swept plains of 1909 Montana. The story is told largely through the eyes of 13 year-old Paul, the oldest of three Milliron boys, whose father, Oliver, attempts to keep the home fires burning after the tragic death of his wife. The white flag of surrender goes out when he answers an ad by a housekeeper which reads, “Can’t cook, but doesn’t bite.” And thus, weeks later, Rose Llewellyn, sweeps off the train from Minneapolis, in a swathe of blue satin dazzling the prairie-brown hearts of all males at the station. She is followed by her brother, Morrie, a stylishly-clad gentleman whose description included “an extraordinary amount of him was moustache.” The two of them proceed to upset, straighten, transfix, intrigue, educate and reorganize the lives of the four Milliron men to the best of their abilities – and beyond - all to the tune of Rose’s relentless cheerful whistling.

This novel is a paean to love. We the readers can only stand by and wonder.

Beyond the predictable seedlings of romance, is the love of the land. Doig writes with such reverence for the soil, snow, furrows, mountains, sky, wind and the beauty of the vast aloneness. Into this passion, he weaves the rhythms of family. You grieve with loss just as deeply as you chuckle with the brotherly rivalries and spats and eventual forgiveness. Oliver reins in his enthusiastic family with a steady hand, suffering no fools, but always with a clear eye for fairness.

Most of the action – if you can stretch that word far enough – takes place in the one-roomed schoolhouse the boys attend, which by a fluke of circumstance - i.e. the teacher’s eloping with the holy-roller revival preacher-man – is commandeered by the agile Morrie. He turns out to be a genius – full of ideas and information that he doles out to the homesteading children in most unorthodox, astonishing ways. His quick-silver approach not only prompts him to assess Paul’s need for higher stimulation – which results in private Latin studies with him – but his heart is just as attuned to the brutishly raised Eddie. Though he can’t ultimately save him from his creature-skinning father, with face-saving cleverness he provides Eddie with reading glasses, so at least as school he has a chance to see the world clearly.

And everyone has secrets they are keeping with hand-spitting solemnity. Rose and Morrie have a humdinger which ultimately must be reconciled. The school children swap ultimatums in the midst of “dog-piling” in the schoolyard, horse-racing riding backward, spelling-bees, harmonica concerts, revival meetings, school inspector’s visits and all the sturm and drang a one-room schoolhouse can muster.

The novel dances with beauty of phrase. In one deft finishing sweep, Doig contrasts the lowly simplicity of the school with the magnificence of Halley’s Comet overhead, and you feel within you the turning of life with its clear, white light. We pause and listen.

-Lois Glick, Great Falls Library

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