Down by the Schoolyard

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Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, June 11, 2006

THE WHISTLING SEASON

A Novel

By Ivan Doig

Harcourt. 345 pp. $25

Ivan Doig writes about a vanished way of life on the Western plains with the kind of irony-free nostalgia that seems downright courageous in these ironic times. A celebration tinged with sadness, his new novel, The Whistling Season , tells a story twice removed from us: It's the late 1950s, and that little Soviet satellite has startled the United States into an educational panic. Paul Milliron, the narrator, is superintendent of the Montana schools, and he's come to Great Falls to make a sad announcement to the superintendents, teachers and school boards of Montana's 56 counties: In pursuit of greater efficiency and rigor, the state has decided to close all its one-room schoolhouses. "What is being asked, no, demanded of me," Paul laments, "is not only the forced extinction of the little schools. It will also slowly kill those rural neighborhoods, the ones that have struggled from homestead days on to adapt to dryland Montana." As the burden of making that speech weighs on him, Paul remembers his own experience in a one-room school 43 years earlier, and that reverie forms the body of this charming novel.

"When I visit the back corners of my life again after so long a time," he begins, "littlest things jump out first." Indeed, this story is mostly a collection of "littlest things," but all of them jump under the animating influence of Doig's vision. At 13, Paul was the oldest son of a widely respected homesteader named Oliver Milliron. A recently widowed father of three, he raised his boys in an idyllic atmosphere of deep affection and rich intellectuality, but the housekeeping had reached a crisis point: "We practiced downkeep," Paul admits. His father finally decided to hire someone to clean up and cook their meals. Perhaps the comic tone of an ad he spotted in the newspaper is what sealed his determination: "Can't Cook But Doesn't Bite. . . . Housekeeping position sought by widow. Sound morals, exceptional disposition."

When this woman arrives all the way from Minneapolis, she's everything they could have hoped for and more: Pretty, kind, industrious, full of interesting stories. "Just by showing up," Paul says, "she turned the mood of a place around the way a magnet acts on a compass."

Hmm, a witty, saintly father of three hires a beautiful widow with abundant charm: How on Earth does this turn out?

Okay, so the major arc of the plot isn't packed with suspense, but The Whistling Season isn't about the destination (which is a good thing, because some contrived surprises at the end are the novel's only real weakness). Nevertheless, complications arise from the fact that the new housekeeper doesn't arrive by herself. Her brother, Morrie, a quirky little man with an enormous mustache and a vocabulary to match, tags along. Rose and Morrie come with few possessions and even fewer explanations: vague rumors of a troubled past, a lost fortune, the heartache of "perdition." When asked what skills he can offer in this remote Montana town, Morrie claims: "Whist. Identification of birds. A passable reciting voice. . . . Latin declensions. A bit rusty on Greek."

But as luck would have it, the town's joyless school teacher elopes with the preacher, and Morrie is pressed into service. He has no experience in a classroom, but he is a widely educated man with an infinitely curious mind, a good heart and enough enthusiasm to win over the children -- or at least make a spectacle of himself. Even the oldest kids, the thugs in eighth grade who have "a rim of fuzz on the upper lip . . . as if they were starting to grow moss from all their years trapped in the schoolroom," are captivated when Morrie offers explanations that "soar off into full trapeze flight."

To read these delightful chapters about his impromptu lessons on astronomy, weather and ancient history is to feel with renewed intensity the tragedy of the cavernous, regimented testing factories we sentence our children to nowadays. "If only I could bottle it for every teacher under my jurisdiction," Paul thinks, "the fluid passion Morrie put into those class hours."

As the school year progresses, we follow Paul and his siblings through the usual confrontations with older bullies and sassy girls. Most of this is sweet and funny, but sometimes the story touches on the real hardships and cruelties of desperate families living in a remote, unforgiving land.

Doig has been at this for a long time; he's 67 and the author of eight previous novels and three works of nonfiction, including the memoir This House of Sky . You can see the evidence of that experience in his new novel: its gentle pace, its persistent warmth, its complete freedom from cynicism -- and the confidence to take those risks without winking or apologizing. When a voice as pleasurable as his evokes a lost era, somehow it doesn't seem so lost after all. ยท

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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