Scenes from an early-20th-century Montana childhood, from this veteran Western author (Prairie Nocturne, 2003, etc.).
Lured by the government promise of free land for homesteaders, Oliver Milliron forsook his Wisconsin drayage business and brought his family to Montana. Now it’s 1909, and Oliver has been able to make ends meet as a dryland farmer, weathering the death of his wife from a burst appendix. He is struggling to raise his three boys single-handedly (13-year-old Paul, the narrator, and kid brothers Damon and Toby) when he spots an ad for a housekeeper. Rose Llewellyn doesn’t come cheap; she wants her fare paid from Minneapolis, plus three months wages in advance. Oliver submits, not expecting that pretty, petite Rose will have her brother Morrie in tow. Conveniently, the teacher from the one-room schoolhouse absconds, and dapper, erudite Morrie steps into the breach. Doig’s story centers on the impact of these unconventional siblings on simple rural lives. While Rose gets the farmhouse shipshape, Morrie proves a surprisingly successful novice teacher. Overall, it’s a sunny tale. The boys ride horseback to school. A dispute between Paul and an older bully is settled with a race, riders facing backwards. The novel is also an elegy for the “central power” of the country school as a much older Paul, in 1957 the state superintendent of schools, is charged, to his dismay, with their abolition. In 1910, the school passes its inspection with flying colors, as Halley’s comet streaks across the sky and the schoolkids greet it with harmonicas. Paul hasn’t developed an interest in girls yet, but he will have a man-size decision to make. Oliver has fallen for Rose and they are set to marry when Paul discovers that Rose and Morrie are on the run from a scandal. Should he tell his dad? The melodrama is a weak ending for a novel that had so far avoided it.
Minor work, carried along by homespun charm.