Friday, January 05, 2007

The Whistling Season, by Ivan Doig

Not only could you let your school-aged children read this book. You should. It's hard to find a gem like this that will so artfully penetrate our own layers of cynicism to experience a childhood of simple pleasures and the normal agonies of life before radio and television.

A rural Montana homesteader is widowed in 1909, and within a year he is ready to hire a housekeeper for himself and his 3 boys. He hires one from Minneapolis, sight unseen, even though the ad in the paper says, "can't cook, but doesn't bite".

The housekeeper is not the frumpy matron he and his boys imagined, but is instead an attractive brunette named Rose who comes with an unexpected escort: a somewhat eccentric and erudite brother Morris. Both of the new Montana residents are hard workers. Rose is a domestic dervish, although it is unfortunate that her cooking is as non-existent as advertised. Morris cuts wood while discoursing on all manner of subjects with the eldest son, Paul, who attends a one-room school house where he is one of only two seventh graders.

Due to an odd turn of events, the school teacher running off with an itinerant tent preacher named Brother Jubal, the school is hard up enough to offer the job to Morris. This turns out to be wonderful turn of events. Morris, though a novice teacher, brings all his passion and zeal for knowledge to the task.

There is a lot going on in this book, and I don't want to give anything away. But it was a pure, grinning pleasure to listen to. The writing is transporting and uplifting while the story is just plain fun. The early 20th century was a hard place to live, but it's a wonderful place to visit. This gets 4 stars.

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