1909, north central Montana. In the year since their mother died, 13-year-old Paul Milliron and his younger brothers have all found ways to cope. When their attentive but overworked father spies a newspaper ad for a housekeeper willing to trek from Minneapolis to Marias Coulee, Montana ( Can't cook, but doesn't bite, reads the headline), change sweeps in like the wind whistling down the Rockies on to the wide, dry prairie.
Rose Llewellyn can't cook, but she can clean and whistle. And when the teacher in the one-room school runs off with a tent show preacher, Rose's brother Morris Morgan is drafted to replace her. The fifth teacher in four years, Morrie appears to be a dandy with a mind full of trivia. Can he manage three dozen youngsters including farm boys, ditch diggers' kids, the battling Swedes and Slavs? With a quick wit, a willingness to conspire and an uncanny ability to discern hidden needs and talents, Morrie is an unlikely success. When the state inspector shows up just in time for the school's celebration of Halley's comet, the children rise to the occasion and ensure the school's future. But then Paul unexpectedly discovers the secret of Rose and Morrie's past, and the whistling season threatens to end.
Ivan Doig's memoir of a dryland boyhood, This House of Sky (1978), helped define modern Western literature, and he's one of its masters. While other writers revel in Montana's mountains, Doig gives us the plains in all their hard beauty. The Whistling Season, Doig's eighth novel, returns to territory he first plowed in English Creek and Dancing at the Rascal Fair the deceptively simple stories of lives shaped by the land. Paul narrates The Whistling Season from his perspective nearly 40 years later as the state superintendent who must decide the future of Montana's one-room schools. Adult Paul intervenes only when necessary, to tell the reader what the boy is still learning: that some of our greatest influences are people we loved for just a season. Leslie Budewitz is a native Montanan who still lives under the Big Sky.