The challenge to read something I don’t normally read for our staff summer reading book club was a little difficult for me. I have a very wide range of reading interests, so the categories presented, which thankfully did NOT include a romance novel, looked like familiar friends. Except one. Westerns. I think the first western I ever read was back in 2011 while preparing for our month long event, Azle Goes West. True Grit by Charles Portis beckoned, and having seen the most recent movie version, I figured it would be a good choice. And so it was. But other than gobbling up Robert B. Parker’s iconic Appaloosa and Brimstone, I left it at that, and went back to my true loves.
So once again this summer I began to tackle westerns. I was a little fearful – was I going to be subjected to lots of showdowns at OK Corral wannabees? So, I let my computer fingers do the walking and got a list of recommended western authors. I chose Max Brand, Ivan Doig, and of course, Larry McMurty.
I won’t wax poetic about McMurtry’s talents. I liked his Boone’s Lick tale, and thought it a very typical western. I then moved on to Max Brand, who was quite a unique person during his lifetime. The Lightning Runner was a treat.
And then I picked up Ivan Doig’s The Whistling Season and I was never quite the same again. Here is my Goodreads review on this most wonderful novel:
~This is at once a beautifully poetic homage to early 20th century Montana life, and a well crafted tale of moral choice in life.
Paul Milliron, now at the zenith of his career as Superintendent of Public Instruction for the state, faces a horrible task of closing all of the one room school houses in order to get all Montana kids into the STEM fever spawned by Sputnik.
And so he returns to his roots with a reverie on his rather unusual childhood, populated by his widower father, two brothers, a woman hired from Minnesota to be their housekeeper, and her purported brother.
But there are secrets kept by the two Minnesotans, and the truth of those secrets lead Paul to a rather difficult life choice, at the age of 13.
I could not get enough of Doig’s beautiful writing: “The Rembrandt light of memory, finicky and magical and faithful at the same time, as the cheaper tint of nostalgia never is.” I could also not get enough of the characters and their quirks, which at first seem way out there, but then pulled back reveal wonderfulness, uniqueness, and a certain type of normalcy. These are all clever and grounded, yet flawed people. Each brother has his own talents that beautifully complement each other. Their lives are full of work, as well as play and wonder. Halley’s comet appears. Latin envelopes Paul and leads him to greater things than he would have thought. Made me wish I had been there in 1910, which of course I really don’t wish, because, well, it wasn’t that comfortable a time and I like comfort. But that is the mark of a great novel and a great writer.
And so, “[e]ven when it stands vacant, the past is never empty”. That past calls Doig’s readers to revel in the story, and personally face the choices Paul must make and decide whether they would do the same. I never did come to a conclusion on it, and some others may not either. But the wrestling will be worth it.~
In our collection, Doig’s novel is not shelved with the Westerns; it is in adult fiction. But it’s western to me. Can’t get much more western than Montana in 1910.