Book Review: The Whistling Season

Synopsis from Goodreads: “Can’t cook but doesn’t bite.” So begins the newspaper ad offering the services of an “A-1 housekeeper, sound morals, exceptional disposition” that draws the hungry attention of widower Oliver Milliron in the fall of 1909. And so begins the unforgettable season that deposits the noncooking, nonbiting, ever-whistling Rose Llewellyn and her font-of-knowledge brother, Morris Morgan, in Marias Coulee along with a stampede of homesteaders drawn by the promise of the Big Ditch-a gargantuan irrigation project intended to make the Montana prairie bloom. When the schoolmarm runs off with an itinerant preacher, Morris is pressed into service, setting the stage for the “several kinds of education”-none of them of the textbook variety-Morris and Rose will bring to Oliver, his three sons, and the rambunctious students in the region’s one-room schoolhouse. A paean to a vanished way of life and the eccentric individuals and idiosyncratic institutions that made it fertile, The Whistling Season is Ivan Doig at his evocative best. 

Told from the past perspective of 13-year-old Paul Milliron over the course of a year on his family’s homestead in Marias Coulee, Montana, this character-driven historical fiction breathes life into the Milliron family, the great open spaces of Montana and growing up in this rural area in the early 1900s. The Milliron family of Paul, his father Oliver, and two younger brothers, Damon and Toby, have been limping along on the household front since their mother passed away the year before. Paul’s father decides to answer an ad in the paper placed by a young woman seeking a housekeeping position, and into their lives Rose Llwellyn and her brother Morris Morgan, come with a bang.

While Paul’s father works his own land and operates a freight-hauling business on the side to furnish supplies out to “the Big Ditch”, a massive irrigation project being undertaken, Rose tackles the dust bunnies and washing in a Mary Poppins kind of spit-spot fashion. In the meantime, the one-room schoolhouse attended by Paul and his brothers suffers the loss of their teacher, and Rose’s brother Morris is pressed into service as the new teacher, where he brings ideas of education and learning to the 3 dozen Marias-Coulee students they had never even dreamed of.

Told with a sure, measured pace, Doig beautifully creates images of the landscape of Montana and the people inhabiting it, while unrolling a quiet story of growing up and the hardships of homesteading that will make you feel like you’re sitting at the oilcloth-covered table with Paul in the early morning house while he studies his Latin and ponders the wonders of Halley’s Comet, making it’s trip through the sky in the spring of 1910.

For lovers of books, language and learning, as well as the great open spaces of Montana, this one is a good read.

This is book #2 for the Fall Into Reading Challenge (historical fiction), and book 1/2 for September’s monthly TBR Knockout challenge from Completely Melanie.

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