2017-11-04 / Features

Bittersweet discovery

new favorite author
By Phyliss Boatwright For The CT

The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig. Original publication 2006 by Harcourt. Hardcover, 345 pgs. Paperback, $9.74. The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig. Original publication 2006 by Harcourt. Hardcover, 345 pgs. Paperback, $9.74. Every serious bibliophile knows the thrill of discovering a new author who writes in a way that makes both the mind and heart sing. I did just that a couple months ago, via Audible.

(Sadly, much of my “reading” these days is done via audiobooks.) When Ivan Doig’s name popped up on my recommended reading list on the Audible site, I decided to give him a try. And I was instantly hooked.

After listening to the first few chapters of The Whistling Season, I was mesmerized and in awe of the writer’s talent. His prose is simply poetic. He uses – masterfully – every literary trick in the book. The thing that really caught my attention, though, was his use of metaphor. Metaphor is effective when used properly. It can be downright annoying when used gratuitously. Doig has to be the master at using it 100 percent, absolutely, positively, amazingly on point.

An example: “Winters were the tree rings of homestead life, circumferences of the weather thick or thin, which over time swelled into the abiding pattern of memory.”

While listening to the book – mostly on the drive to and from work – I often caught myself so engaged by Doig’s words that I arrived at my destination with little memory of the trip.

His writing is that engaging.

His subject matter may not sound appealing to everyone, but I think his writing style is something pretty much anyone could appreciate. He sets his novels in Montana, in the early years of the 20th Century. The draw of this writer is not necessarily the subject matter, though. It is Doig’s command of the language.

The Whistling Season revolves around widower Oliver Milliron, who hires a housekeeper – and hopefully cook – for himself and his sons after seeing a newspaper ad touting an “A-1 housekeeper, sound morals, exceptional disposition,” who “can’t cook but doesn’t bite.”

From this tidbit of witticism comes an entire tale that is droll and endlessly amusing. Doig’s writing is clever, musical, and endlessly entertaining.

The narrator of the story is Paul Milliron – Oliver’s oldest son – who, when telling the tale, is an adult superintendent of public education. When the mysterious non-cooking Rose Llewellyn and her font-of-knowledge brother-in-law Morris Morgan showed up in Marias Coulee, Montana, Paul was a young boy, however.

One of the many things about this book that captured my attention was Doig’s ability to make the reader see, hear, taste, smell and touch the action that his characters are living.

When Oliver decides to confront the charming Rose about her lack of cooking skills, and demand, as her employer, that she cook for him and his boys, one of many witty scenes ensues. When I came downstairs in the morning, fresh from a dreamless night, I could tell there was something on Father’s mind. Hoping it wasn’t me, I dropped to my place at the table to try to fade into the routine of breakfast.

No breakfast was in sight.

“The time has come, Paul,” Father said with determination, one warrior to another. “I am going to have it out with Rose on the cooking.”


“Watch and see.”

I ran back upstairs to shake Damon and Toby awake.

By the time they were more or less dressed and had spilled out onto the stairs to take a grandstand seat with me, here came the customary brisk knock.

We watched avidly as Father let Rose in and, just like that, was rewarded with, “Isn’t this a fine morning to remember? Oliver, I have decided I am going to tackle the kitchen.”

“You are?” Father sounded like someone who had hit the jackpot. Damon, always our hungriest of the hungry, showed Toby and me his fingers crossed for luck.

“Absolutely,” Rose vowed. “There is not a shelf in there that doesn’t need scouring down.”

The scene goes on, with Rose reminding Oliver that, no, she really can’t cook “at all.” Oliver, as he has been since the day Rose showed up, is once again put at her clever mercy and forced to concede that she is a blessing to the household despite her lack of culinary skills.

The story continues, with Rose’s “brother-inlaw,” Morrie assuming the duties of teacher in the one-room schoolhouse where Paul and his brothers are students. Morrie becomes increasingly important in the plot, and is then the main character in Doig’s next book, Work Song.

After The Whistling Season, I was hooked, and searched for more of Doig’s work. I wanted a printed copy of that book, so I turned to the Orange County Public Library, where I found it, and three more of Doig’s works. I just finished reading a hard copy of Work Song, and thoroughly enjoyed it too.

In this sequel to The Whistling Season, Rose’s “brother-in-law” becomes the main character after leaving Marias Coulee and returning to Montana a decade later. This time, the beguiling Morrie lands in a mining town, becomes a librarian, and is reunited with one of his most memorable Marias Coulee pupils. Work Song is every bit as good as its predecessor.

The sad part of my Doig discovery is the fact that he is deceased. He died in 2015, after a prolific writing career. I will console myself by systematically reading all of his works, though. I suggest that anyone who hasn’t already done so do the same.

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