The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig
Paul lives in Montana east of the Rockies with his father and two younger brothers. His mother died a year earlier. Since then their home has been in disarray and their meals have been bland, overcooked, undercooked, or uncooked. When Father sees a newspaper ad “Can’t Cook But Doesn’t Bite”, he decides to contact the woman to come be their housekeeper. She’s a widow, so she must be able to cook better than any of their family can.
Rose responds, but asks for an advance. When she arrives on the train, her brother Morgan unexpectedly arrives with her. They have arranged for Rose to live with a neighboring couple. Fortunately, the couple has an attic where Morrie can bunk. He seems enthused to take on odd jobs. After cutting a cord of wood for an elderly lady, he says “Hard labor – that is strenuous exertion such as cording up wood – was just what I needed to draw me out of dwelling on the recent plights of life.” Their family’s leather glove business had folded, which was why Rose was job hunting. They are vague on the details of their life back in Minnesota, though.
Paul, Damon, and Toby attend the local one room schoolhouse. Paul is in 7th with one other student. The older 8th grade boys tend to be bullies and side against each other down Slav and Swede ancestry. In a schoolyard fight Paul gets in a lucky punch against Eddie, one of the worst of the older boys. Damon is able to defuse a beating by suggesting the two older boys have a horse riding contest. After a week of children hiding the ride from their parents and teacher, the contest is run. Even after, though, there is tension between the two boys.
Rose takes over the house and brings it back to life. But she stays away from the kitchen. When Father hints about her cooking, she goes on to other tasks that need done, ignoring him. Morrie has some rough starts, but is able to find manual labor in the depressed area. Then he takes over as teacher in the school. Haley’s Comet is due to appear in April, so he focuses on that celestial event to help teach the children science and about the solar system and universe. They even work on a special program to present to the parents.
Despite the lack of cooking, Paul, his brothers, and father soon bond with Rose. Many mornings she and Paul meet in the kitchen before the rest of the house is stirring. No one can replace his mother, but Rose is a good substitute. But do she and Morrie really fit in their Montana farming life? Paul knows there is a mystery in Rose and Morrie’s past. No one in the family tries to get it out of them. Morrie is a good teacher even if this is the first teaching job he has held. Paul keeps holding his breath but Morrie steps around the pitfalls that school children can bring.
Ivan Doig tells the story of The Whistling Season in Paul’s first person narrative, the observations of a 12-year-old boy as he is moving beyond childhood and into the world of adults. It is told from a perspective of nearly 50 years later. Paul is now in charge of the state’s education system and supporting the one room schoolhouses that still cover Montana.
The reader is quickly caught up in the feel of the time and place of The Whistling Season. Doig uses language that is lyrical and expressive yet believable of a 12-year-old. Paul observes his youngest brother Toby in his new hand-me-down hat. “Toby had graduated to Damon’s old but still nice [hat], although it was big on him and he kept running out from under it in his jousts with the dog.” It easy to picture the young boy running with the hat coming off his head – not from the wind but from his own carefree joy.
The Whistling Season is a photo of a long gone time and place brought back to life. Because of the narrator’s perspective, the nuances of adult life are often missed. But all comes out in the end. There is a scene near the end where Morrie sits down with Paul and talks to him as a man. Doig wrote it well, showing the respect Morrie gives the boy and the boy understanding the situation and the attitude from the older man.
Ivan Doig’s The Whistling Season is a realistic slice of American life. It comes from both 100 and 50 years ago as the old ways began to morph into more modern methods of teaching. It is not a fast paced or action filled read. Instead, the novel draws the reader along to the end. Appreciate the art of Doig’s writing and the sense of time and drama in The Whistling Season