Who among us can blame Turley? His superstitious mind may be on to something. After all, things were swell in 1909 in eastern Montana until this rakish schoolteacher named Morgan arrived, bringing with him a fancy-pants vocabulary, brass knuckles, knowledge of Halley's Comet and, worse, some unmanly spectacles to help Turley's willfully ignorant son learn to read. Now things are out of joint. Someone will have to pay.
In The Whistling Season, Montana native Ivan Doig's 11th book, that someone turns out to be not Mr. Morgan but rather Paul Milliron, Morgan's most willing pupil. Forty-eight years after his days as a seventh-grader in Morgan's one-room schoolhouse, Milliron, now the superintendent of Montana schools, is charged with bringing the state's young boys up to snuff in math and science. How to begin? Close all the one-room schoolhouses. Loathe to raze the sorts of places where he was formed, Milliron nevertheless decides to initiate the purge with the school he attended.
You'll often hear Doig compared to giants of Western prose such as Wallace Stegner and A.B. Guthrie, masters whose work has defined an entire genre of American literature. Such lofty praise is all well and good, but it can deter as many new readers as it attracts. If you're among the thus-far deterred, it's time to snatch Doig's eighth novel from the shelf ($25 be damned), not because we may have a legend in our midst but because what we have is a flinty working man who's great at his job. Doig is an old pro, an expert storyteller. And I watch him work much the way I'd watch a bent-backed woodworker fashion cabinets.
A coming-of-age schoolyard novel is a minefield of clich & eacute;s. Common in this genre are young love, schoolyard bullies, jeopardized budgets, unorthodox teachers, secret handshakes, fussy administrators and at some point an auditorium of rapt parents -- in short, all manner of potential hokum we've seen a million times and promised ourselves we won't fall for again. Thankfully, Doig never asks us to. Sure, much of the above finds its way into the book -- this is middle school after all -- but Doig surprises at every turn.