For one who enjoys reading, the best times come when stumbling upon a book and writer you never suspected would knock your socks off and realizing he has authored a long list of titles you can look forward to reading your way through. Always late to the party, such was the case with me and Ivan Doig who passed away this past April leaving behind thirteen novels and five books of non-fiction. His last novel, published this month is a combination coming of age and road story titled Last Bus to Wisdom. The protagonist of Doig’s tale is an 11 year-old boy named Donal “Red Chief” Cameron who just might be one of the freshest and most memorable juvenile characters in fiction since Huckleberry Finn.
In the summer of 1951 Donal unwillingly leaves Montana and his beloved Gram when she has some “female trouble” requiring surgery and is unable to look after him during her time of recuperation. Donal boards the dog bus, a Greyhound bound for Manitowoc, Wisconsin and the home of his great-aunt Kate. The trip is a memorable one for him, including a first kiss, a run-in with a thief and a scare from one ornery sheriff. He arrives in Manitowoc and is met by the odd couple of all time, Aunt Kate and Uncle Herman. It isn’t long before Donal catches on that his aunt is none to happy with him around and suddenly she is sending him back to Montana and into an orphanage. Donal boards another Greyhound, head filled with nightmares of life in a state home, but looks up to see the person sitting next to him is none other than a runaway Uncle Herman. Together they head west on the road to fun and adventure.
On the road together the two encounter a good sampling of both delight and disaster. Uncle Herman is a great fan of the wild west and anything related to cowboys and Indians and Donal assures him of finding a lot of both. Soon enough they are thick in the middle of it, decked out in Stetson hats purchased with the H&S Green Stamps Donal got for all his Greyhound miles—the 1950s answer to frequent flyer miles. They meet plenty of Indians and a rodeo full of cowboys where Uncle Herman discovers the thrill of wild bronc riding. With their money lifted by a pickpocket on one of the bus rides, the only choice left to them is signing on for ranch work cutting and baling hay along with a family of hoboes. The two are living the life of their wildest dreams until the sheriff turns up looking for an absconded husband and runaway boy.
There are more than a few things to praise about Doig’s novel but at the top of the list is the very particular and colorful idiom of all the characters. Donal has a way with words that never fail to surprise and the German Uncle Herman speaks a language all his own that few outside of Donal can follow. But language and style are only two of Doig’s big guns. The characters in this novel—and there are many—are each wonderfully drawn, men and women who walk off the page to sit beside you. There is as well, the character of place and location that revives mid-twentieth century towns and locales so tangibly.
One of the most enjoyable reads of the year. Easily among this reader’s Top Three.
I never knew before reading Last Bus to Wisdom that the knobs often seen attached to steering wheels in the 1950s were known as “necker knobs.” It made one-handed steering easier so the right arm could go snugly around your girlfriend’s shoulder.