Thursday, April 18, 2024

The Whistling Season - Ivan Doig

I have a new favorite writer. My sister used to tell me how great Ivan Doig's books were, and she was right, at least based on my first Doig, The Whistling Season. Set in Montana in 1909-1910, The Whistling Season is the story of the Milliron family, with 13-year-old Paul as the moral compass and main character, and the city slickers from Chicago, Rose and her brother Morrie, who go West for a fresh start in life and end up rekindling life and hope for the Millirons.

Here is the GoodReads blurb that does a good job of capturing the essentials of the story:

"Can't cook but doesn't bite." So begins the newspaper ad offering the services of an "A-1 housekeeper, sound morals, exceptional disposition" that draws the hungry attention of widower Oliver Milliron in the fall of 1909. And so begins the unforgettable season that deposits the noncooking, nonbiting, ever-whistling Rose Llewellyn and her fond-of-knowledge brother, Morris Morgan, in Marias Coulee along with a stampede of homesteaders drawn by the promise of the Big Ditch-a gargantuan irrigation project intended to make the Montana prairie bloom. When the schoolmarm runs off with an itinerant preacher, Morris is pressed into service, setting the stage for the "several kinds of education"-none of them of the textbook variety-Morris and Rose will bring to Oliver, his three sons, and the rambunctious students in the region's one-room schoolhouse. A paean to a vanished way of life and the eccentric individuals and idiosyncratic institutions that made it fertile, The Whistling Season is Ivan Doig at his evocative best.

What the blurb doesn't convey is the joie de vivre of the Milliron family, even as they are mourning the death of their mother, Paul and his two brothers are exuberant, each in his own way and following his passions and dealing with his own foibles. It doesn't convey the sense of community that the children of the homesteaders bring to their one-room schoolhouse--the backwards horse race is one of the best scenes I've ever read. And it doesn't convey the excellent writing, characterized by a deft turn of phrase that usually made me smile and sometimes even sigh.

Doig wrote only one stand-alone novel--the rest are grouped into series: Ivan Doig - Book Series In Order. The Whistling Series is the first in a trilogy, and I am eager to read the other two as I believe they contain the further adventures of Morrie Morgan, the greatest teacher on the planet, then or now. I absolutely loved the character of Morrie, and I particularly enjoyed how he taught his students about life, the universe, and everything using Halley's comet (which blazed back on the scene in 1910) as his teaching aid.

Other things I loved in this book--the spelling bees, Toby's broken toe, Eddie's glasses, Paul's dreams and the midnight cocoa conversations between Paul and Rose, and, of course, the mystery surrounding Rose and Morrie's background. 

BTW, Rose whistles while she works, hence the title. 

I love westerns, and I really love finding first-rate western writers. Bringing out my crystal ball, I think I'll be working my way through the Doig collection over the next year or so. He's a gem.


  1. I love westerns, too. But I've never read any of Doig's novels. I didn't even know they were considered westerns. But after reading this review I will definitely be checking him out. Starting with this one. :D

  2. I haven't read anything by Doig, but this sounds wonderful and I've put it on my list. I do like reading about the history of the west. Thanks for the recommendation.

  3. This sounds wonderful! I'm embarrassed to admit that it has been unread on my kindle since 2013! I've added it to my summer reading list.

  4. This sounds like it would be good for my book group!

  5. My brother in Montana has always been a big Doig fan too. I'd like to get on the bandwagon. I always wanted to read Dancing at the Rascal Fair, which I will sometime. I like westerns as well. Keep going with Doig!

  6. Just ordered this! Thanks for the suggestion and a review that made me want this book.

  7. Very fine review Jane and its a great thing to discover a favorite new writer or a favorite new book. And to do so we have to cast our net wide and read alot of books within the year. I have heard of Ivan Doig but never read him. But your review has inspired me to do so.

  8. You've sold it to me! Sounds like proper character based storytelling which I love. Will check out.