Whistling Season Background Notes
By one of those strokes of luck that was entirely disguised at the time, I happened to go to high school in a western town built on a particularly dreamy boast. "Aridity is insurance against flood!" trumpeted the turn-of-the-twentieth-century advertisements for land around Valier, an indeed arid spot on the Montana prairie chosen for a gargantuan irrigation project, a manmade lake three miles long, and the exuberant plat of a town to hold ten thousand people.
|The author jots details at the Doig homestead.|
But by the time I put in my four years of school there just after mid-century, Valier had peaked at a population of only a thousand, and, having waned to half of that since, it is ending up as a slow-motion ghost town. The irrigation project, however, continues to make the prairie bloom, and that ungainly small-town school, with its sprinkling of idiosyncratic scintillating teachers, gave me some roots as a wordsmith who looks back at boom-and-bust places such as Valier. I saw a natural work of fiction waiting there in the story of the pell-mell Montana land rush which drew in people by the boxcar-load (they would pile all their belongings and themselves into Great Northern Railway boxcars in the Midwest and be delivered to sidings on the naked earth of the West, where they would climb off and try to turn themselves into homesteaders)--a storyline of dreamers galore told by a narrator who would view it all for us through one of the most versatile lenses of the American experience, a one-room school.
As ever, I am trying with this novel, in its eternal concern with the land and the American restlessness on it that is our history, to reach the territory cited by William Carlos Williams: "The classic is the local fully realized, words marked by a place."
As to current issues, the small-town and ranching West where I grew up was centered on something which the nation to this day should make its primary priority, but no longer does: its schools. In my parents' generation, one-room schools were the pivots of career and social life; my mother and father met at a schoolhouse dance. My own school years saw my family make extraordinary arrangements in order "for Ivan to go to school." Against the current grain of politics and budget constraints, The Whistling Season presents the passion of its narrator, Paul Milliron, for far-flung public schools that inculcate vitality into their neighborhoods and against "dormitories on wheels," the fleets of school buses which would "consolidate" his archipelago of one-room schools out of existence. No child left behind? Paul Milliron means it.