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Friday, May 26, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

"The Whistling Season": Tiny school, giant legacy

Special to The Seattle Times

"The Whistling Season"
by Ivan Doig
Harcourt, 345 pp., $25

Early in Ivan Doig's new novel, "The Whistling Season," the narrator reflects on his Montana boyhood and observes that "childhood is the one story that stands by itself in every soul." That has certainly been the case for the Seattle author. Doig's first book, "This House of Sky," a gripping memoir of his Montana childhood, has become a classic. "English Creek," the inaugural novel of his popular Montana trilogy, is narrated by the unforgettable character of Jick McCaskill, a young teen when the story takes place. Both books established the author as one of the great contemporary writers of the American West.

Doig's new novel returns to the well-tilled ground of his Montana roots as experienced by a bright young homestead boy who is coping with a grown man's burden of grief. In fact, close readers of Doig will note more than a few parallels between Paul of "The Whistling Season" and the young Doig of "This House of Sky."

In "The Whistling Season," Doig blends a coming of age story and late-life reflection to luminous effect. The author is masterful at portraying the emotional complexities of family and community through the eyes of a precocious youngster. In this case, a formative time for a boy and his family is remembered a half-century later.

The year is 1909. Paul Milliron and his two younger brothers have lost their mother the year before. Paul is riddled with grief and plagued by bitter dreams. He and his brothers are doing their best to help their father manage the prairie homestead while soaking up what rudimentary education they can in a one-room school.

Author appearances

Ivan Doig will read from "The Whistling Season" next month at these locations:

• At 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600; www.elliottbaybook.com).

• At 1 p.m. Saturday at the Edmonds Bookshop, 111 Fifth Ave S., Edmonds (425-775-2789; www.edmondsbookshop.com).

• At 7 p.m. June 9 at the University Book Store Seattle branch (206-634-3400; www.ubookstore.com).

• At 6:30 p.m. June 10 at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park (206-366-3333; www.thirdplacebooks.com).

Everything changes when two strangers from the East step off the train and into their lives.

Rose, a tender and insightful young widow, is hired as housekeeper for the family. She soon becomes Paul's trusted confidante. Her dapper brother Morris, polished and erudite, fills in for the year as schoolmaster. The two usher Paul into worlds of learning and self-discovery. But there is something mysterious about this unlikely pair and the events that sent them west.

The story, which recounts a remarkable school year that is a turning point for Paul and his family, is told from young Paul's perspective. But it is remembered by an older Paul, now late in his career as superintendent of public instruction for the state of Montana. The world of his old one-room school with its commingling of immigrant nationalities, social classes, ages and abilities is 40 years behind him — and about to disappear forever.

The stalwart American virtue of a common public education for all comes through heroically in this novel. At one point Paul contemplates the radiating horse paths through the prairie that converge on the schoolhouse and he realizes "the central power of that country school in all of our lives." Everyone he knows is in some way deeply tied to it.

Doig brings that observation to life in rich detail. In his hands, Paul's Montana prairie community becomes a microcosm for all communities. And though the setting is the historical West, the forces at play on the characters remain current, from ethnic mistrust and millennial panic, to standardized tests and school closures — and a distant bureaucracy that holds sway over all.

In his earlier memoir, Doig, who like his character Paul lost his mother at an early age, describes an inspiring teacher who introduced the author to the wonders of language. She was at once "exhausting and exasperating and exhilarating." Doig brings those traits to lively fruition in the character of the teacher, Morris. The schoolmaster's revitalizing affect on the young Paul is a lovely process to behold.

Late in the novel, undercurrents converge, and Paul's acumen leads him to the truth of Morris' and Rose's history. The emotional maturity he gains under their tutelage prompts a resolution that is as startling as it is humane.

Doig has given us yet another memorable tale set in the historical West but contemporary in its themes and universal in its insights into the human heart.

Tim McNulty's most recent book of poetry, "Through High Still Air," was published last fall. He lives on the Olympic Peninsula.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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