The Whistling Season

by Ivan Doig

Paperback, 2006




Orlando : Harcourt, c2006.


Fiction. Literature. HTML: 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..… (more)

Media reviews

Doig's writerly ambition is less in plotting than evoking, and it is his obvious pleasure to recreate from the ground up — or the sky down — a prior world, a prior way of being. The land and its people — the family, the neighbors — are laid out before us with a fresh, natural openness.
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Doig has given us yet another memorable tale set in the historical West but contemporary in its themes and universal in its insights into the human heart.
Washington Post
Doig has been at this for a long time; he's 67 and the author of eight previous novels and three works of nonfiction, including the memoir This House of Sky. You can see the evidence of that experience in his new novel: its gentle pace, its persistent warmth, its complete freedom from cynicism --
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and the confidence to take those risks without winking or apologizing. When a voice as pleasurable as his evokes a lost era, somehow it doesn't seem so lost after all.
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The saga of how this stranger from Minneapolis and her brother (soon to become the new teacher) change lives in unexpected ways has all the charm of old-school storytelling, from Dickens to Laura Ingalls Wilder. Doig's antique narrative voice, which sometimes jars, feels right at home here, coming
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from the mouth of the young Paul, who is eagerly learning Latin as he tries to make sense of his ever-enlarging world. An entrancing new chapter in the literature of the West.
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Publishers Weekly
.Doig's strengths in this novel are character and language—the latter manifesting itself at a level of old-fashioned high-octane grandeur not seen previously in Doig's novels, and few others': the sheer joy of word choices, phrases, sentences, situations, and character bubbling up and out, as
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fecund and nurturing as the dryland farmscape the story inhabits is sere and arid. The Whistling Season is a book to pass on to your favorite readers: a story of lives of active choice, lived actively.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member Copperskye
"When I visit the back corners of my life again after so long a time, littlest things jump out first."

And so begins this utterly delightful, gently humorous, very old-fashioned kind of book. Written in first person, our narrator, Paul, takes us back to the Fall of 1909 when he was twelve and
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living with his recently widowed father and two younger brothers in Marias Coulee, Montana. Their life, and the central action of the story, is centered on the one-room schoolhouse.

This is my first book by Doig and it certainly won't be my last. His writing is poetic as he captures the time and sense of place beautifully. The characters are well drawn, they feel almost like people you know and with whom you'd want to sit a spell. I'm looking forward to revisiting Morrie in Work Song. Recommended especially for fans of Kent Haruf, Leif Enger, and, although I haven't read her, I suspect, Laura Ingles Wilder. I would also recommend for patient middle to high school readers who will easily relate to the story.
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LibraryThing member cbl_tn
October, 1909. The all-male Milliron household is getting by a year after losing their wife and mother. A chance newspaper advertisement brings excitement into their lives in the form of a housekeeper from Minneapolis – a housekeeper who “can't cook but doesn't bite.” Typically for a small
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community, the Milliron's new domestic arrangements spill over into the three brothers' school life. Decades later, the oldest Milliron brother, Paul, recalls the events of this pivotal year in the lives of his family and of their rural Montana school. It's clear that the newcomers will be catalysts for change, but it's not clear whether the changes will be for better or worse.

The Whistling Season will provoke nostalgia in many readers – for family and community, for the carefree days of childhood, for simpler times that exist only in memory. However, this is much more than a sentimental, “feel good” book. Doig is a master story teller – dramatic without being melodramatic, and very witty. No detail is unimportant, yet the details don't weigh the story down. If readers haven't already identified with Paul, they'll be hooked by his description of his part of a shared bedroom: My books already threatened to take over my part of the room and keep on going. Mother's old ones, subscription sets Father had not been able to resist, coverless winnowings from the schoolhouse shelf—whatever cargoes of words I could lay my hands on I gave safe harbor. I think book lovers everywhere will recognize that room! Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member whitreidtan
The one room schoolhouse is an iconic image of the prairie, one which rural farmers' children traveled for miles to attend. Paul Milliron is the State Superintendent of Montana's schools charged with closing down some of the last one room schoolhouses in the state now that the advent of Sputnik has
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focused the whole nation on the state of math and science education and accelerated the school consolidation movement. Paul himself is the product of one of the schools he must now shut down. As he travels to his childhood home and toward his scheduled meeting with the intent only of softening the blow, he finds himself remembering a seminal year in his education.

The year that Paul is 12, his father sees an advertisement for a housekeeper who can't cook but doesn't bite. He hires Rose Llewellyn to come tend to the house and his boys, who have been missing a woman's care ever since their mother died. The advent of Rose and her dapper and very erudite brother Morrie in the Milliron home, and indeed this dry land farming community, turns out to be of momentous import. Morrie assumes the schoolteacher's position in the tiny schoolhouse that serves the surrounding farms, engaging and challenging the children far beyond anything ever expected of them before.

The characters in the story are complex and interesting and their actions, even when they are surprising, remain true to their cores. They are no-frills, reflective of the landscape in which they live. The slow unfolding of the story of that pivotal year is carefully measured and only occasionally interrupted by the older Paul's thoughts on his upcoming and unlooked for meeting to close the school that served him so well in his youth and offered him so much the year that Morrie and Rose moved to Marais Coulee. Doig's skill in painting place and atmosphere shines throughout the novel as does his rending of tensions and loyaties in this place still being settled. The unembellished writing makes the story accessible and unsentimental. But unembellished doesn't mean that there are not many riches here. The depiction of family, knowledge, and learning is plain and true and real. And while it took a little effort to get into the rhythm of the story at the beginning, I recommend perseverance. Doig has a given the reader a gift with this novel chronicling a time not so long past but certainly disappearing forever.
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LibraryThing member porch_reader
This is one of my favorite books of the year. Set in rural Montana in 1909-1910, [The Whistling Season] is told through the eyes of Paul Milliron, a seventh grader in a one-room schoolhouse in Marias Coulee. When Paul's recently widowed father, Oliver, see an ad for a housekeeper who "can't cook
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but doesn't bite," he invites Rose into their home and their lives. Accompanying her is her brother, Morrie, who takes over as the teacher of the one-room schoolhouse. Both Rose and Morrie are exactly what Paul and his two brothers need in their lives. and they soon become invaluable in helping them deal with the challenges that face the boys.

This is the type of story that I generally like. I enjoy getting a sense of another place and time through fiction. But this story shines because Paul provides an amazingly insightful window on the world. Doig does an excellent job of capturing the voice of this precocious 13-year-old. While the events that unfold are at times suspenseful, this is not a plot driven story. Rather, everytime I opened the book, I felt as though I was getting to spend some time in this place and time that are so different from my own, with people who I loved. I hated to see the book end. I spent some time trying to come up with other characters in literature who remind me of Paul, and I can't come up with a comparison. But I did find myself thinking that Oliver reminded me a bit of Atticus Finch. And that is high praise indeed.

This will be on my list of best books of the year. I can't wait to read more by Doig.
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LibraryThing member silva_44
Rarely do I award any book five stars, but this inauspicious little volume rocked me to the very core. Doig perfectly captured the rawness of Montana, without letting that same unyielding rawness transfer to the characters (save one or two), each of which was so beautifully written that I found
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myself savoring every page. His grasp on the workings of a little country school at the turn of the century proved to be quite accurate, from the stories that I've heard my grandfather tell of his days in a one-room schoolhouse. As a teacher, he inspired me to greater heights and the wish that I could be a Morris Morgan. He managed to perfectly blend the past and the present into a novel that is sure to stay in my imagination for years to come. Bravo!
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LibraryThing member AMQS
Oh, what a marvelous, beautifully written book! The book describes the eventful school year (1909-1910) of the narrator's 7th grade in a one-room schoolhouse on the Montana prairie. Paul Milliron is the perfect, clear-eyed storyteller, beginning from the moment his recently widowed father reads an
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ad for a housekeeper seeking a position ("Can't cook but doesn't bite"). The unconventional Rose arrives to take charge and restore order, and is in the unexpected company of her dandified brother Morrie. The book is populated with unforgettable characters with whom it was a pleasure to spend time, from the tart-tongued Aunt Eunice to the schoolyard bully who is terrorized at home; from the eloquent father Oliver to the even more magniloquent Morrie. The 1909 story is interspersed with reflections from the adult Paul, now the superintendent of Montana schools, facing the closure of the one-room school houses in favor of "consolidation," and an effort to modernize education in the age of satellites and Sputnik. The book reads like a love letter to the iconic little schoolhouses of the prairie homesteaders:

"What is being asked, no, demanded of me is not only the forced extinction of the little schools. It will also slowly kill those rural neighborhoods, the ones that have struggled from homestead days on to adapt to dryland Montana in their farming and ranching. (The better to populate Billings and benefit its car dealers, I suppose.) No schoolhouse to send their children to. No schoolhouse for a Saturday-night dance. No schoolhouse for election day; for the Grange meeting; for the 4-H club; for the quilting bee; for the pinochle tournament; for the reading group; for any of the gatherings that are the bloodstream of the community."

I will hold onto this book, to read it again when I'm not so busy, and I will definitely read more by this author.
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LibraryThing member -Cee-
What a truly great book! Doig writes with such explicit emotion and detail - across age ranges and temperments. His writing sweeps me away. The varied characters in this 1909 Montana setting are so timeless and believable. They remind me of real people I know today.

This is a touching family story
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within a small community told by Paul, a 13 year old boy. Paul's father is a widower with three boys. There is humor, tragedy, love, fear, and amazement in their everyday hardscrabble existence as a feminine influence breezes in restoring order and connection.

An interesting juxtaposition of perspectives of Paul at 13 and Paul in his later years is woven lightly throughout. Paul struggles and comes to terms with perspectives on adult relationships, temptations to compromise values in an effort to succeed in life, forgiveness, the value of a small town education and learning to live with others.

I wanted to see the comet. I wanted to race backwards on horseback. I wanted to talk and listen to Morrie. I wanted to have an early morning cocoa with Rose. In a way, I did all that. Doig is that good.
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LibraryThing member laytonwoman3rd
It has taken me much too long to get around to Doig, whose story-telling skills, I now find, are among the best. This book lands solidly on Linda's Goodest Reads Ever list. It is set in Montana in 1910, the year Halley's Comet "came back". The narrator fits one of my favorite patterns---the adult
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looking back on a significant episode of his or her own childhood, and the characters are perfect, realistic, just-complicated-enough. I loved every one of them, even the scoundrels, as I'm sure I was meant to, and the story was beautiful too. Didn't hurt that it featured a lot of whistling (my Dad was a joyful whistler) and a pitch-perfect one-room school environment. No gratuitous violence, no incest or spousal abuse, no rebellious yout's, no heavy "issues", and only one minor character in the mold of Pap Finn, just for the spice of it. All five for this one.
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LibraryThing member KAzevedo
Set on the plains of Montana in the early 1900s, this is the lovely story of a farm family, a widower and his three young sons. A woman's touch arrives in the form of a young and excellent housekeeper, hired via an advertisement that is headed "Can't Cook But Doesn't Bite". With her comes her
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brother, Morrie, an educated dandy who becomes the teacher of grades one through eight in the one-room schoolhouse. There is a touch of mystery about them, but their presence enlivens the following year for all who live nearby. Through the eyes of Paul, the oldest son and a scholar, we experience life on a dry farm and in a small rural school.

This gentle story is full of humor and warmth, with richly described characters and a strong sense of place. It evokes a longing for a less cynical time. Doig's simple writing style creates a place and characters that I came to care for.
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LibraryThing member countrylife
Even when it stands vacant the past is never empty. In The Whistling Season, Paul Milliron returns to his childhood home in the capacity of Montana's Superintendent of Schools, on a hateful errand to shut down the state's one-room schools. Back at his vacant childhood home, the never-empty past of
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Paul's youth comes to us through the author's pen.

If you are of an age to remember the TV series, The Waltons, you'll understand what I mean when I say that this story played in my head like an episode of The Waltons. With just the merest hint of what is going on in his life in the story's 'now' (late 1950s), framing the story of what happened 'then', when he was about 13 (1910). It was spare living but a full life, lived with his father and brothers, and riding their horses to the one-room schoolhouse, same as the rest of the 'neighbors'. Arrow heads, buffalo bones, Halley's comet, irrigation projects, dryland farming, cooking, language and learning Latin, and dreaming are the stuff of Paul's youth.

Montana was real to me in this book. I may not have been in the saddle (thank you, says the horse), but I felt the dust and the frost. These people were real to me, too, especially the brothers. Their various personalities and temperaments were true to each throughout. Setting, characters and story – everything – was perfect.

Close the book for the last time, close your eyes, and you'll still hear the whistling – the wind, the woman and the swans. It is a harmony in the ears of my heart, the melody of a lost way of life, the song of one-room schoolhouses, of the young folks educated there, and the sturdy pioneers from which they descended.

I loved this book! (5 stars)
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LibraryThing member ElizabethChapman
The Whistling Season is a wonderfully enjoyable novel, a story that keeps you turning the pages without resorting to cliff-hanging adventure or drama. It compels simply by the strength of its characters and ability to conjure the life of Montana dry farmers in the early 20th century.

The story is
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told through the eyes of Paul, a thirteen-year-old boy living with his two brothers and widowed father, narrated by Paul’s adult self. When the family answers an ad for a housekeeper, Rose shows up with her brother, Morrie. Before long Rose has the house in good running order and Morrie becomes the teacher in the one-room schoolhouse.

Paul is exceptionally intelligent, and the combination of his boyish innocence and nearly adult perceptiveness make him an unusual and effective narrator. The wistfulness of the man is already lurking the boy, and the joy of existence still lingers in the adult. I highly recommend The Whistling Season to anyone who enjoys beautiful but understated writing and great story-telling.
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LibraryThing member TooBusyReading
This gentle story made me nostalgic for a time and place that isn't in my past and shouldn't be on my nostalgia chart. It is there because the story felt so real to me that it could have been in my past.

A school administrator in the 1950s, the age of Sputnik, tasked with shutting down rural
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one-room schools, recalls his childhood attending such a school as a boy. His widowed father answered a newspaper ad and hired a housekeeper who can't cook but also doesn't bite.

The story isn't strong on plot but the writing is beautiful and the characters are wonderful. One person was especially nasty, a trapper, and I hated reading the part about his hunting a wolf.

There are a few surprises along the way, but the strength of this story lies in its ability to submerge the reader in an entirely believable and real world and story.

This novel is the first book I've read by this author, but I am going to be sure to read more.
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LibraryThing member katiekrug
This was an earnest, nostalgic novel that was prevented from veering into the saccharine by a good dose of humor. I would have rated it 4 stars but I thought the end was a little silly and unnecessary. Still, a nice evocation of homestead life in Montana in the early part of the 20th century.
LibraryThing member Bellettres
A fine book, with captivating characters. I especially loved Paul, the academic prodigy, and Morrie, his mentor. (The one-room schoolhouse that is the focal point of the story reminded me not so much of "Little House on the Prairie" as of "The Waltons" and the character of John-Boy.) But Ivan
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Doig's prose is much more sophisticated than that, although it conveys perfectly the innocence of the early 20th century in this country. Having studied Latin for four years in high school, I also enjoyed its prominence in this novel. A first-rate reading experience that I'm grateful not to have missed!
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LibraryThing member whitebalcony
For me, this book read like a children's book. A children's book full of big words. If this is how an Historian believes good literature is written, he is sadly mistaken.
LibraryThing member tjblue
This was a recommendaton from the local libray book club. It was set in Montana and was about a family and a one room school. It is a wonderful story of a time gone by! Sometimes I wish I had a time machine!
LibraryThing member msbaba
Whistling Season by Ivan Doig is a deeply affecting coming-of-age novel set in the dry Montana prairie of 1910. The story is told through the memories of Paul Milliron looking back to one important year in his childhood, when he was 13. The book begins in 1950 when Paul, now Montana State
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Superintendent of Public Instruction, travels to his hometown of Marias Coulee with the unpleasant task of closing its one and only one-room schoolhouse. He gazes up at the night sky watching Sputnik blink across the stars and knows that a new era has arrived. He is heartbroken because this new era will wipe out all that has come before. There will be no going back.

Doig knows this territory well—it is his own ancestral roots. He has researched it thoroughly and published other successful fiction and nonfiction books set in this period and place. While reading this book, I felt transported back in time—the landscape, the people, the very dust that covered everything—came alive on the page. So do the characters—the singular, bizarre, and clarion-clear characters of the Old West—Doig is, indeed, a master at creating wonderfully authentic people that you really care about.

The story is poignant. Young Paul and his two younger brothers are experiencing the first year of grief following the death of their mother. Oliver Milliron, their father, is understandably overwhelmed with the task of being father, mother, and homesteader. Through the distant Minneapolis newspaper, he sees an ad by a housekeeper. In this manner, the ever-whistling, beautiful Rose Llewellyn comes into their life. She arrives unexpectedly with her brother, Morris Morgan, an eccentric, walking encyclopedia. Events unfold that push Morris toward becoming the town’s schoolmaster. Although he has never done anything like that before, teaching seems a task that he was born to. His students flourish under his idiosyncratic and outrageous style. But Rose and Morris hold a secret that Paul eventually uncovers. How he handles that situation delineates young Paul’s crossover from child to adult.

The novel is in every way, a loving lament about the passing of uniquely American way of life—the rough, yet magical and free life of Western Montana dry-land farming homesteaders.
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LibraryThing member mbergman
This wonderful novel is 3 stories in 1: 1) A Montana state superintendent of public instruction in the 1950s is being pressured by the state legislature in the wake of Sputnik to close the state's one-room country schools. As he mulls over what he's going to do, he recalls, in first-person
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narration, his 7th-grade year in one such school in 1910, the year of Halley's Comet. 2) A widowed father of 3 sons (one is the narrator) responds to an ad for a housekeeper, and the family adjusts to her presence. 3) The housekeeper & her brother flee a mysterious past to make a new life in the isolated West; the brother takes over the one-room school with unusual tactics. It's wonderful storytelling with elegant simplicity of prose that avoids sentimental nostalgia.
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LibraryThing member lyzadanger
What started as an uplifting and stirring north plains epic--I loved the highly-educated characters and the sweetness of the family of boys--kind of devolved into an insipid "Little House on the Prairie"-ness in tone that never redeemed itself before the slapdash, jolting ending.

Plus marks for the
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interesting scenes of one-room-schoolhouse madness and the descriptions of the people (mishmash) and beauty (bleak/flat) of the prairie.

But certain elements of the plot were dead obvious for later twists. Lies leaking from characters were thinly veiled. Repetition of country themes became tiring.

I really think I could like Doig. His style is very much like "what I read." Something about this book rubbed me slightly the wrong way. Perhaps it was too saccharine, too insipid. The alter-character of the protagonist was weak and never fleshed out. Something.

I'll try another of his novels and see if it fares better.
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LibraryThing member maggie1944
I completely enjoyed this book although I agree with other reviewers who compare it to Little House on the Prairie and other "sweet" memories of growing up in the rural west before 1950. I am not one to judge whether a book is a literary novel or not. Usually I like a novel which provides some
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complexity to the characters, interest in the plot, and uses evocatively descriptive language without being overly dense and I think Doig meets these criteria. The story is about a widower, his three young boys, and a couple of people moving west to avoid their past. The young woman coming to the west advertises herself as looking to find employment in house work but "does not cook but does not bite", Oddly emough, she is hired by the widower who does not believe she does not cook.

The book is written from the oldest boy's POV and conveys great love for this former way of life and since I agree with him, I enjoyed it a great deal.
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LibraryThing member lizhawk
A tad bit predictable but lovely, engrossing story of a family on the Montana plains. Mom dies so Dad answers a newspaper ad for a housekeeper and gets Rose and Morrie, the likes of whom this small town has never seen.
LibraryThing member laurie_library
Good storyline, and the author makes you believe that your'e actually in the small one-room school house. Sort of like little house on the prarie for boys. The ending was a bit far fetched forme though. I will read more of his stuff.
LibraryThing member SheilaDeeth
Usually, if we’ve all liked a book in our book group, the discussion after reading is a little boring. “Good book.” “Yes.” “I liked it.” “So did I.” But Ivan Doig’s The Whistling Season was a little different. We all really liked it, but most of us felt dissatisfied, one way or
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another, with the ending. That made for a really interesting evening’s chat.

Most of us found the book a little slow to start with. The voice is very authentic, but takes some getting used to. But it’s worth persevering, we agreed. Soon you’re absorbed in a not-so-distant world, watching an everyday life that you more-than-half regret missing. Everything is told from the view-point of a young teenaged boy—details skipped that you might have wished told—details added that surprise and intrigue. And there’s a cleverness in the way the tale is put together that rewards deeper thought afterwards. Why doesn’t Rose cook? Why does she whistle? How do different pairs of siblings compare? And whose decisions in the end are more similar than different?

But, as I said, we weren’t at all sure about the end. We speculated at what might be missing, which questions unanswered perhaps, and came to no conclusion. Maybe that’s what the author intended of us, because life leaves us wondering too.

I felt like I’d spent a year in the country when I’d finished. It was a pleasant time though the living wasn’t easy. I learned something, and I’m left questioning—what have we gained? What have we lost? And when will Halley’s Comet return?
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LibraryThing member mcgaffey
Dancing at the Rascal Fair still is tops for me.
LibraryThing member Esta1923
On a rainy day in 1909 Rose Llewellyn steps off of a train. She's greeted by a widower and his three sons. . . who didn't expect she'd bring her brother. The newcomers' agenda, their interaction with the family (and the community) are threads Doig uses to weave the tapestry of a transitional time.




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