Thanks to an unusually long train ride yesterday and a phenomenon mentioned on a fellow blog, I have now completed reading The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig. Overall I found it enjoyable, thought-provoking, and challenging.
The story centers around the Milliron family and is narrated by Paul, the eldest son. At the time of telling – 1957 – he is 61 years old, and the overwhelming bulk of the story takes place in 1909; our narrator is 13 years old, a 7th grader in a one room school house in rural Montana. After hiring somone to clean their home (being a household of consisting entirely of males who are too busy or uninterested to get that important chore straight) their lives start changing, later a peculiar teacher is hired and again their lives shift in ever more unimaginable ways.
Often modern storytellers, particular the Hollywood variety, leave me dissatisfied because they either write stories I find too predictable or they struggle to avoid the first condition by making wild, unbelievable left turns. Ivan Doig proves he adept at protecting me from both of these let-downs. Many twists and turns pop-up, surprising me greatly, but never violating my trust and suspension of disbelief.
Considering an authors background had really been on my mind lately after re-reading The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s linguistics background is key to the entire work. Likewise Doig is a history PhD and it repeatedly shines through in this volume as timing of many actual events lace into those generated for the story.
Classifying this novel would be difficult. It is definitely a coming-of-age story, but it also promotes thought on how culture shifts over time, it addresses love and mourning and conflict, it’s a drama, but also almost a mystery, and it strongly addresses issues of education from teaching method to administrative process.
When the country school gets their new teacher, he rambles, he gets excited, he takes unorthodox approaches, but he always is thinking about how to get ideas into heads and motivate curiousity. Also he carries something (or things) mysterious from his past, which consumes much of the readers concern nearly throughout the story. I found myself identifying with this character, for better or worse: often I try to tie odd concepts into my lessons, seeking to challenge how students perceive relationships of knowledge. Many a time, home room teachers are cocking their heads and squinting at me, but occasionally they also get my point and reinforce it at the end of class in much more elegant Japanese than I can generate. Fortunately, the children seem to grasp these flights more often than not.
Our character list is long, and many characters have multiple nicknames, like Tobias, aka Tobe, aka Toby, aka Peg Leg Pete the Pirate. I kept a page in a notebook where I was scratching down all the family connections and school connections. Doig has an amusing (annoying) habit of introducing people in different manner at different times, like “the two sets of Drobny twins”, “the Drobny brothers”, “Seraphina and Eva Drobny”, “the entire 6th grade”, “Sam Drobny”, … figuring out who was being referred to was sometimes like one of those logic puzzles (i.e., The blue car is next to the green car, neither Mr. Smith nor Mrs. Jones drives a blue car, the cat owner drives a green car, …) I have at least 64 characters scratched on my list, plus at least five horse or pets. While the list is long, most of them include development and add to the story, so they are worth their weight.
Although, I can be an intellectual snob, my one complaint would have to be the way Latin is addressed, almost as if the average reader should be able to understand tricky sentences. Fair portions of the Latin discussion went right over my head, and I would expect even more would be lost on the average reader. This didn’t ruin anything for me, but a lot of it seemed unnecessary. On the other hand, a few times he deftly slipped enough explanation into the dialog that it just seemed natural to have the Latin there.
Yesterday’s long train ride is due to timing. After a meeting, I ended out at the train station before the proper end of my work day and long before the express train. Apparently there are some folk almost spying on the foreign city workers looking for complaints to stir up, so sitting and having tea near the station at that hour would be unwise. I hopped a local train for an hour ride home, reading all the way, and almost missing my stop because my nose was in the print.
As someone pointed out on a book-related blog, they often read faster and faster as they get deeper into a work. Certainly, this was the case for me with this one. Perhaps getting more adjusted to an authors style allows the faster reading, yet another factor plays in here; I found myself more and more invested in the story as things progressed.