REVIEW: "The Whistling Season" by Ivan Doig

  • Posted on: 25 August 2012
  • By: TedG

The writing, we all agreed, was outstanding. Irv was quite taken with the metaphors. When Ron finished this book, he immediately read Doig’s Mountain Time, which he says was equally grand.  But that’s where the agreement ended. John and Ted both remarked how the book began slowly and seemed to be headed nowhere in particular, yet it was so engaging, neither could give it up. “There was no gunfight, no drama, nothing really happening,” John noted. Ted agreed, saying, “It stayed that way right up to the end, too.”

The Whistling Season is a coming-of-age story set in 1909 Great Falls, Montana. Oliver Milliron is a “dirt farmer,” which occupies all of his time, while Oliver’s sons––Paul, Damon, and Toby––are concerned with typical kid things, namely attending school, avoiding bullies, and simply being kids. The family lost its wife and mother a year before, making elder son Paul the second-in-command. Paul is realistic and very mature for his age, but he is still just a 13-year-old boy. When Oliver sees a classified ad in the paper entitled “Can’t Cook But Doesn’t Bite,” he decides the family needs a housekeeper. So they answer the ad, hiring Rose Llewellyn of Minneapolis to come to Montana. The story then spins out over a year. Rose’s brother, Morrie, comes with her from Minneapolis, and almost immediately is asked to take on the job of teacher for Great Falls’s one-room school house. Morrie is a fine dresser with a large vocabulary that he wields with great skill, neither of which fits well among the wide-open spaces of Montana except within the walls of frontier academia. He turns out to be a great teacher, and the kids whose education has suffered with the frequent coming and going of teachers begin to excel under Morrie’s tutelage. But he’s hiding a secret.

Amazingly, we don’t know Morrie’s hiding a secret until the end of the book, which is why Ted and John wondered where the book was going nearly to the end. It’s precisely the end that troubled Irv––it’s just so unlikely that a 13-year-old boy would confront an adult in the way that Paul does. Perhaps it’s a result of that early frontier living––people were tougher then, no-nonsense, even the 13-year-olds.

The Whistling Season reminded Ted of Russell Baker’s autobiography, Growing Up, in part because Paul is thinking back on his childhood from a future in which he’s a school superintendent for the very district he was in as a boy. Coincidentally, John revealed that he grew up in Great Falls, and would have been a student at the time Paul Milliron was an administrator there. “But we didn’t learn any of those big words,” he says. The vocabulary and level of intelligence was pretty amazing for a prairie dirt farmer’s kid in the early 19th century.

The story’s slow pace lowered our Interest ranking just a little, with the average rank coming out to 4.6 out of 5. Readability, though, was held in high regard, and all of us gave it a 5 out of 5, and all of us said we would read another of Ivan Doig’s books. In fact, Ron already had.

The conversation ended with a question: what was “the whistling season?” Did it refer to that one year when Rose Llewellyn came into the life of the Milliron clan and whistled her way through each working day as their housekeeper? Or was it the migration of whistling swans (now known as tundra swans) that Paul briefly mentions is one of his annual markers of the seasons? We’re not sure, but no matter the book’s title, it was a very good part of our group’s reading-year.


Two rankings sent to me by email change our average scores a bit.

Interest = 4.2, Readability = 4.5.