In 2008 our community read “The Whistling Season” by Ivan Doig, a celebration of education of all sorts. During that year’s program, Doig remarked, “My narrator in ‘The Whistling Season,’ Paul Milliron, educator and bookman and graduate of a one-room school that he was, would have fully known the value of a community read.” Recently, Doig sent these well-wishes to mid-Missouri:
Even from most of a continent away, Columbia’s warmth toward my book could be felt. “The Whistling Season” has had many community reads, including one entire state, but the enthusiasm of the One Read organizers in “bringing” me by video conference was memorably singular, as was the response of the library crowds. May One Read successfully count many more birthdays in bringing books and minds together in so spirited a fashion.
Read the words of celebration and congratulations from other past One Read authors and speakers. And thank you for making this program great!
(from the author, originally published by Powell’s Books)
“Can’t cook, but doesn’t bite.” It is only the line atop a classified advertisement in a weekly newspaper, that of “an A-1 housekeeper, sound morals, exceptional disposition” seeking to relocate to Montana early in the twentieth century. But for young Paul Milliron, his two younger brothers and his widower father, and his rambunctious fellow students in their one-room school, it spells abracadabra.
Paul is the voice of the book: a bit wry, contemplative, and literally bedeviled by dreams — lifelong, he has had the disturbing knack of vividly recalling the episodes of imagination that swirl in his mind at night. Paul has risen to become the state superintendent of education, and at the vantage point of 1957, strapped for budget in what he knows is going to be a changed world of education because of the Soviet landing of Sputnik, he is facing what is more like a nightmare, everything he has believed in is “eclipsed by this Russian kettle of gadgetry orbiting overhead.” In his heart he knows the powerful political pressures on him to “consolidate” the rural one-room schools, which will be the death knell of those perky idiosyncratic little institutions such as the one that produced him at Marias Coulee.
Before his crucial convocation of rural educators to give them his decision, though, he impulsively drives out to Marias Coulee, now a scatter of mostly abandoned homesteads just beyond the northern fringe of a successful irrigation project. There the story begins, with Paul swept back in memory to 1910 when the Milliron family’s hard-bargained new housekeeper, Rose Llewelynn, and her unannounced brother step down from the train, “bringing several kinds of education to the waiting four of us.”
Ivan Doig was born in White Sulphur Springs, Montana, growing up the only child to his ranch hand father and ranch cook mother, living along the Rocky Mountain Front where much of his writing takes place. Doig knew he wanted to be a writer his junior year of high school. His ﬁrst book, “This House of Sky,” was a ﬁnalist for the National Book Award in 1979. Doig is a former ranch hand, newspaperman and magazine editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern, where he received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in journalism and he also holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Washington. He lives in Seattle with his wife Carol.
My narrator in “The Whistling Season,” Paul Milliron, educator and bookman and graduate of a one-room school that he was, would have fully known the value of a community read, all the way from its linguistic beginnings. “Communitas,” the root of our usage of “community”—in Paul’s well-thumbed Latin-to-English dictionary, these several meanings of “communitas” are given: “sharing, partnership, social ties, fellowship, togetherness.” What better rewards could readers and writer alike ask for, than the common ground of literary fellowship through reading?
Regards, Ivan Doig
(from Harcourt Brace, publisher)
Question: In “The Whistling Season,” Paul and his brother decide to keep a secret from their father because doing so will deliver the right outcome. Throughout the book, Paul becomes the guardian of an increasing number of secrets. What are your feelings about individuals who withhold potentially damaging information out of a sense of personal justice? Do you sense this type of behavior was more prevalent a century ago than it is today?
A: Paul indeed starts to feel inundated with secrets, some of them of the slyly funny, schoolyard variety and some vitally serious. He is a very bright thirteen-year-old, who at one point realizes his life is about to change, that he is “less than a man but starting to be something more than a boy.” But in the case of the ultimate secret, he has to draw on instinct and innate decency to reach his decision. So I see Paul’s chosen course as one of compassion, in the name of giving his family a chance to knit itself together and to offer amnesty to someone who has made a misstep in life, but who shows every sign of having retrieved her full worth. To me, and I suppose this is reflected in Paul, there is sometimes not just one justice in a situation but rather a choice, and my hope is that Paul chose wisely.
Paul’s kind of decision possibly was more in line with his time and place—the early twentieth century and a community, rural, but full of nuance toward neighbors and family—than our screen-driven, tell-all era of e-mail, television, movies, and so on. Yet, my belief is that decent behavior is never out-of-date.