I’m late to the Ivan Doig fan club. I just finished reading Last Bus to Wisdom, Doig’s last book, written along with four others during his illness. To say that Last Bus to Wisdom is a charming, engaging story about a vulnerable eleven-year-old boy is true, yet inadequate, in fully describing the story and the experience of reading the story. Published in 2015, the year of Doig’s death, Last Bus to Wisdom received a number of well-deserved awards: named best book of 2015 by Kirkus Reviews, named best book of the summer by the Chicago Tribune, the Miami Herald, and Paste Magazine.
In teaching literature, I always made time for a discussion about the value of literature and that effective literature transcends time and place. On the Web site devoted to Ivan Doig and his work, http://www.ivandoig.com/index.html, I was pleased to see the following quotation by Doig: “If I have any creed that I wish you as readers, necessary accomplices in this flirtatious ceremony of writing and reading, will take with you from my pages, it’d be this belief of mine that writers of caliber can ground their work in specific land and lingo and yet be writing of that larger country: life.”
Even with references to Montana, Wisconsin, Greyhound buses (aka the dog bus) Kate Smith, and Lawrence Welk, Last Bus to Wisdom is not dated or out of date. Doig takes readers on a road trip with Donal, Red Chief, Campbell from the Double W ranch in Two Medicine Country of the Montana Rockies to Wisconsin and back. In 1951, Donal, orphaned, is eleven and lives with his grandmother on the Double W ranch where his grandmother is the cook. The two share a tiny cabin on the property.
Unfortunately, Gram must have an extensive surgery which means she will have to stay with nuns for her recovery thus earning no money. In desperation, Gram contacts her sister Kitty in Wisconsin asking that Donal be allowed to spend the summer in Wisconsin with Kitty and Herman. Kitty agrees even though she and her sister have rarely spoken to one another in the last few years.
Donal sets out on a Greyhound bus, aka the dog bus, alone for the long trip to Manitowoc, Wisconsin. As with other journey stories and quests, Last Bus to Wisdom provides readers with a number of adventures along with Donal.
One of the guiding factors in the story is Donal’s newly acquired autograph book. He hopes to get enough signatures in his book so that he can make the Guinness Book of World Records. During his trip, he aims to ask as many people as possible to write in the autograph book. Donal is quite a storyteller and loves embellishing his stories.
Gram gives Donal a pair of beaded moccasins to take on the trip. In their little cabin, the two have shared the moccasins, so Donal feels especially lucky to have the moccasins with him. Unfortunately, he meets a fellow traveler and in embellishing the story about the moccasins, turning them into treasured and expensive Indian keepsakes, he almost loses the moccasins and his entire suitcase. Luckily, Donal is sharp-eyed enough to see the traveler taking the wicker suitcase from the bus at a stop where Donal is not getting off the bus. The bus driver helps Donal retrieve the suitcase and Donal learns a lesson, or does he?
Not shy, Donal meets people on the bus and in the bus station. Finally, he reaches Manitowoc, WI, and meets his great-aunt Kitty and her husband Herman. Donal quickly learns Aunt Kitty is not like his grandmother at all. Aunt Kitty is all sweetness and light in talking with others; with Herman and soon with Donal, her mean-spirited side shows its ugly self.
Gram has pinned $30 into a handkerchief inside Donal’s shirt; the money is supposed to buy him comic books and new clothes for the trip back when school starts. Unfortunately, Aunt Kitty throws Donal’s shirt away because it has gotten torn in an altercation on the bus. Both Donal and Aunt Kitty are horrified to learn the money is gone with the trash collectors.
Aunt Kitty plays bridge every Monday with three other women. In Donal’s first week in Manitowoc, Aunt Kitty comes home from the game angry and upset because one of the members is going to St. Louis to visit family for the summer, thus leaving the group short-handed. Aunt Kitty determines to teach Donal how to play bridge so the games can continue. As a teacher, Aunt Kitty leaves much to be desired. Then Herman teaches Donal on the sly with cards that have pictures of scantily-clad women on them. Donal learns quickly.
However, Aunt Kitty is not happy even when Donal learns to play bridge. She abruptly tells him he is returning to Montana immediately. Although Donal had not wanted to be in Wisconsin, he does not want to go back to Montana too soon and have to go to an orphanage since Gram is not yet well enough to take him back.
Still, Aunt Kitty is determined, so she puts Donal on the bus; surprisingly, she does give him $30 to make up for the lost money. When Donal gets on the bus, he sees a passenger with a newspaper in front of his face. It is Herman who tells Donal that the two of them are going on the trip West. Herman says he has left Kitty.
Last Bus to Wisdom is full of other characters, both kind and evil including a man putting himself forward as a minister, but who steals from Donal and Herman, leaving them destitute until Donal figures out a way to save them both.
Need I mention that Donal has red hair? Red-haired characters are almost always near and dear to my heart. Gram uses the phrase “red-headed thinking” to describe Donal’s fanciful thoughts. I truly like that expression.
In 1949, Joseph Campbell defined the journey story: “It refers to a wide-ranging category of tales in which a character ventures out to get what he/she needs, faces conflict, and ultimately triumphs over adversity.” Donal, Red Chief, Campbell (no relation! LOL!) certainly experiences all those elements on this journey.
Montana State University has collected Ivan Doig’s work at this site: http://ivandoig.montana.edu/. Readers will find manuscripts, diaries, correspondence, and more on the site.