Writing nice when niceness isn’t cool

Whistling, by its very nature, is a cheerful occupation. Nobody whistles when he or she is down but only when good spirits can’t help but overflow into self-expression. So, it seems to us that expectations for THE WHISTLING SEASON might run to the carefree and light-hearted. Yet, the biggest rap against Ivan Doig’s 2006 novel is that lacks irony…in other words, it is too nice.

We don’t see nice too much these days so it is a bit of a shock when we encounter it. The book club enthused over parts of the book and then some of us complained that there wasn’t enough substance to chew on. Too nice, we said.

At the turn of the previous century, THE WHISTLING SEASON is about a motherless family of three boys that hires a housekeeper off an advertisement (“Can’t Cook But Doesn’t Bite). The housekeeper arrives in Eastern Montana dressed in blue satin with a heavily moustached brother. After that, they all pretty much go about their daily lives. The housekeeper whistles as she cleans. The brother takes over after the one-room school teacher elopes. The boys get up to various things in school. Halley’s comet appears. It’s all beautifully written and easy on the eyes to read. But there isn’t any of that irony. The reviewer for the New York Times writes:

“If the novel carries any shock it is of contrast with the past. Could people have ever been that . . . unmodern? That straight-up, or straight-on, or at least compounded of such seemingly simple ingredients? Even where we find chicanery and vile behavior — there is a bit — it's chicanery and vileness of the old sort; we almost pine for it."

This reviewer goes on to ponder if Doig is, in essence, ignoring his (and our) modern sensibility in a retreat to the past or if he is artfully recapturing a former era. We doubt it is an accident that the book is set in the fast-disappearing prairie pothole region of the upper Midwest. Only half of our prairie potholes (wetlands) remain. The rest have been bulldozed. Potholes are critically important to migratory waterfowl. Doig mentions none of this, yet his narrator, the oldest of three sons now grown up, notes the whistling of waterfowl both at the beginning and the end of the book.

“Around me now the sky could not be more guiltlessly empty. Even the wind has nothing to say, for once. The only sound anywhere is at the pothole pond, where waterfowl, passing through with the seasons, sometimes alight. Whistler swans, my lifelong favorite, are the maestros, and geese next, but today, it is a few dozen mallards that have migrated in and formed a fleet, with much quaking. Some kind of duck event and they have the prairie to themselves for it, except for me and whatever is passing over.”

A state employee in the era of Sputnik, the narrator is charged with closing Montana’s last one-room school. Maybe Doig is being more than nostalgic here, maybe he is thinking it is critically important to record that time and place and society before all memory of it has vanished. It is possible, we think, to be serious of purpose, yet also, be nice.