Donal Cameron is being raised by his grandmother, the cook at the legendary Double W ranch in Doig's beloved Two Medicine Country of the Montana Rockies, a landscape that gives full rein to an eleven-year-old's imagination. But when Gram has to have surgery for "female trouble" in the summer of 1951, all she can think to do is to ship Donal off to her sister in faraway Manitowoc, Wisconsin. There Donal is in for a rude surprise: Aunt Kate-bossy, opinionated, argumentative, and tyrannical--is nothing like her sister. She henpecks her good-natured husband, Herman the German (as Donal discovers him to be), and Donal can't seem to get on her good side either. After one contretemps too many, Kate decides to pack him back to the authorities in Montana on the next Greyhound. But to Donal's surprise, he's not traveling solo: Herman the German has decided to fly the coop with him.
Donny Cameron, a/k/a Red Chief, is an orphan, and he's on the road, not by choice. His custodial grandmother needs a serious operation, and feels she has no other option but to put him on the Greyhound to spend the summer with her sister while she recuperates. It's 1951, when the idea of sending an unaccompanied 11-year-old on a 1600 mile bus trip with a change of clothes and traveling money pinned inside his shirt pocket might have raised some eyebrows, but was apparently not as unthinkable as it seems now. Along with his hand-me-down wicker suitcase Donny has an autograph book, a slew of instructions from Gram, and a gift for invention that can kick into high gear at the drop of an innocent question. His traveling companions are a varied and ever-changing lot, and he views them all as potential contributors to the collection of autographs he hopes will get him into Ripley's Believe it or Not one day. As it turns out, getting from Gros Ventre, Montana, to Manitowoc, Wisconsin, was the easy part. There Donny meets his Aunt Kitty and Uncle Dutch, a mismatched pair if ever there was one, and finds his summer is not going to be a barrel of fun. His initial reaction to Aunt Kitty is that she's really the great Kate Smith (same broad beam and remarkable bosom, same melodious voice---why didn't Gram ever say??), but after the disappointment of finding that to be an illusion, it's all downhill. And Uncle Dutch, a/k/a Herman the German, can't help much against the Kate and her house rules. But then... Well, let's just say Huck and Jim got nothin' on Snag and One-Eye, as Donny and Herman become on the road to Wisdom. Don't miss this bus.
I've seen Doig compared to Wallace Stegner, and LT cross-recommends the two authors. Aside from the Montana connection, I just don't get that. Stegner fails to move me, although I admire his skill with the language; every Doig novel I've read so far has delighted me from beginning to end. None of his characters are ever at the mercy of their circumstances. No matter how rough things get, they are resourceful in meeting the challenges. Good luck and bad luck crop up in about equal measure. Doig also handles the grotesque with a much lighter touch, and his world comes alive in a way Stegner's has never quite done for me.
Things go awry and the great aunt determines to ship Donny back to Montana to a foster home. Happily, though, this is the last straw for his great-aunt's husband who runs away with Donny and their adventures begin.
This is Ivan Doig's last book and has become one of my favorites. Once again he wonderfully captures the flavor of Montana as well as a boy growing into a man. There is lots of humor, a good story and an almost-happy-ending for many.
Slightly extended review:
Traveling by Greyhound from Montana to Wisconsin and back, an eleven-year-old boy has adventures and meets characters who change his life.
It's a road story, a buddy story, a growing-up story, and we've read and seen it all before, but Doig in his last novel does it very, very well. It's one of those novels that have left me feeling as if I'd grown a whole new little world inside me.