“Last Bus to Wisdom” by Ivan Doig
The Northwest literary firmament lost one of its brightest luminaries last spring when Ivan Doig died at the age of 75. The Edmonds author was renowned as a Western writer, particularly drawing on his roots as the son of a Montana ranch hand to write novels, nonfiction and memoirs that celebrated the lives of working people.
His final novel, published posthumously a few weeks ago, is topped by a wonderful red ribbon of a title: “Last Bus to Wisdom” is classic Doig, and draws its inspiration from a cross-country bus trip the author took as a youngster.
The narrator of this tale is, as Doig once was, a red-headed youth with a fascination for language and a capacity for tall tales that went beyond mere fibbing. Eleven-year-old Donal Cameron is leaving Two Medicine Country – the same fictional Montana landscape that Doig conceived of in his earliest Montana-based novel, “English Creek,” and returned to many more times in later books.
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With $30 pinned in his pocket, and a “memory book” under his arm, Donny boards a bus for Wisconsin in June of 1951. He is being sent to stay with a great-aunt he’s never met while the grandmother who has raised him undergoes surgery for “female trouble.” Donny and his Gram have always kept just one step ahead of the poor house, and if his Gram doesn’t come through surgery, he fears he will be consigned to an orphanage.
But as he discovers, the alternative is hardly optimal. Aunt Kate is a canasta-playing fiend who has little tolerance for the antics of a ranch-bred boy (or, for that matter, of her husband). That idiosyncratic fellow, Herman the German, proves to be the lone bright spot for Donny. The two take refuge in Herman’s greenhouse out back of the house in Manitowoc and swap stories of the Wild West.
When Aunt Kate inevitably gives Donny the boot for his youthful transgressions, Herman, too, leaves the henpecking behind and the two hit the road in a third act that takes up three-quarters of the book.
What follows is a picturesque romp by “Dog Bus” across the western United States. The pair takes in a powwow, a rodeo, and Yellowstone National Park, before finally landing in Wisdom, Montana, to work at a ranch through haymaking season. Donal and Herman have scrapes with the law and with con men. They rub shoulders with bronco-busters, dance with Indian fancy dancers and break bread with hobos. This is a mid-20th century boy’s dream of the perfect road trip.
Doig always loved slinging the vernacular, and perhaps knowing that this would be his last novel, he is liberal in peppering the text with the parlance of cowboys and vagabonds. He also seasons the book heavily with Herman the German’s broken English. But who wouldn’t forgive him this indulgence?
“Last Bus to Wisdom” isn’t Doig’s best book, but it his last offering of what he once poetically called “bright-cheeked hope.” Your task is simply to enjoy it.
The Bookmonger review appears each week in Take Five. For more entertainment, go to BellinghamHerald.com/entertainment.
Celebrate the life and work of Ivan Doig with a reading from “Last Bus to Wisdom” featuring David Laskin (bestselling author of “The Family” and “The Children’s Blizzard”) and Ivan’s wife, Carol Doig, in a free event at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 18, at Village Books, 1200 11th St.