When Seattle author Ivan Doig died following a long illness last April, America lost one its most beloved storytellers. With his final novel Doig aptly crowns a luminous, 16-book legacy.
“Last Bus to Wisdom,” is a deeply humane coming-of-age tale set in the early 1950s. It draws from the author’s rich personal history and ranges across much of his storied American West.
Doig’s most memorable novels (“English Creek,” “The Whistling Season,” “The Bartender’s Tale”) are seen through the eyes of precocious youngsters coping with adult-world circumstance. “Wisdom” adds generously to that list, and propels the action with a mid-century road trip peopled with an ensemble of memorable characters.
Donal Cameron is a bright 11-year-old forced to leave the familiar comfort of the Montana ranch, where he lives with his grandmother – the ranch cook – and find his way in a larger, more complex world. Donal lost both parents to a highway accident when he was younger, and now “Gram,” is facing serious surgery. He’s sent off on the Greyhound with his best rodeo shirt and a battered wicker suitcase to stay with an unknown great aunt in Wisconsin.
Doig knows this territory well, having lost his own mother at 6 and being raised by his grandmother (a cook) and working father on a hardscrabble Montana ranch. His stunning memoir of those years, “This House of Sky,” established him as a leading voice among Western writers.
“Home was running away from me,” Donal confides to himself on the bus, considering the worst case with Gram’s illness. “For if I lost the last of my family to the poorfarm or worse… I would be bound for that other terrifying institution, the orphanage.”
Life in Wisconsin may indeed be worse. Aunt Kate is a manipulative, overbearing presence who abuses her husband at breakfast and condemns Donal to jigsaw puzzles for summer recreation. Uncle Herman for his part takes refuge in his greenhouse where he tends plants and escapes into his fellow German Karl May’s fanciful pulp novels of the Old West.
When not plying Donal for ranch stories (the lad is an imaginative storyteller), Herman passes on crucial survival tips. In spite of them, Donal quickly gets on Kate’s wrong side. When the boy gets sent back to Montana, Herman secretly cashes in his disability settlement and joins him on the bus.
With Gram still in the hospital, Donal asks where they will go. Herman mimics the Western pulp cadences, “Anywhere’s. Just so it is – he made the cocked-finger gesture and pointed that pistoleer finger toward the west – ‘thataway.’ ”
Thus launches an epic Western road tale worthy of Doig’s masterful telling.
They are an unlikely pair: an aging and eccentric German on the run, it turns out, from more than an angry wife, and a youngster cast adrift without much in the way of family.
Doig clearly enjoys this road adventure. Donal encounters a youthful Jack Kerouac scribbling in his notebook by flashlight on the midnight bus. The travelers proceed straight to a grand rodeo on the Crow Reservation, then to Yellowstone where, robbed of their cash, they hole up for the night on a balcony at Old Faithful Lodge.
When they board the last bus for the small ranching hamlet of Wisdom in Montana’s Big Hole Valley, nothing short of a miracle will land the pair on their feet.
Forever the master of colorful characters and landscapes reflecting the vastness and vulnerability of the human heart, Doig has left us with a rollicking road trip filled with both.
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