Two long-distance bus trips give an 11-year-old new horizons and run a lively gamut through mid-20th-century American life.
Orphaned Donal Cameron is miserable about being sent off to Wisconsin in June 1951 to stay with a great-aunt he’s never met while his grandmother has surgery back in Gros Ventre, Montana, though the trip does give him a chance to exercise his overactive imagination with entirely fictional accounts of his antecedents and destination, which he recites to unwary fellow passengers. By the time the bus pulls into Manitowoc, Donal has collected a batch of new signatures and maxims for his cherished autograph book, received his first real kiss from a good-hearted waitress named Letty, and met her boyfriend, Harv, on his way back to jail, accompanied by a mean-spirited sheriff who will be troubling Donal again. Meanwhile, Doig has thoroughly engaged readers’ sympathies for his high-spirited yet vulnerable protagonist. Bossy Aunt Kate finds Donal an unbearable trial and quickly decides to send him back to Montana, which means to foster care. Fortunately, the boy has bonded with Kate’s other victim, her husband, Herman, who turns up on the bus with the welcome news that he intercepted her letter to the state authorities. The pair sets off for a summer of adventures, related with Doig’s customary brio. Jack Kerouac, a champion bronco buster, and a crew of rough-hewn but benevolent hobos are among those they meet on the road to the eponymous Wisdom, where Donal fast-talks them onto a haying crew. Enjoyable coincidences abound, and a leisurely storyline with plenty of twists gives the author ample room to display his knack for vivid thumbnail sketches and bravura descriptions elucidating the skills involved in all kinds of labor. The nasty sheriff gets his comeuppance, and Donal gets a chance to combine new opportunities with old bonds in a highly satisfying conclusion.
A marvelous picaresque showing off the late Doig’s ready empathy for all kinds of people and his perennial gift for spinning a great yarn. He will be missed.