cover image Last Bus to Wisdom

Last Bus to Wisdom

Ivan Doig. Riverhead, $28.95 (464p) ISBN 978-1-59463-202-0

The pleasures of reading Doig’s final novel (he died in April 2015) are bittersweet. His familiar themes are here: love for his native Montana, and his astute observation of and admiration for the tough homesteaders and ranchers who eke out a hardscrabble living. The Double W ranch is once again a backdrop, but much of the action takes place in other western locations, as 11-year-old narrator Donal Cameron (a thinly disguised, youthful Doig) travels to Manitouwoc, Wisc., to stay with a distant relative while his grandmother (who is his guardian; Donal is an orphan) undergoes surgery. Donal is an independent kid, but he’s also an adolescent with anxieties and an overactive imagination, propelling him headlong into scrapes. What was to be a simple trip morphs into a picaresque odyssey in which Donal goes on the lam with a man called Herman the German, who has secrets he must hide. Funny, suspenseful, and nostalgic, this is a rollicking tale set during the summer of 1951 as a “dog bus” (aka Greyhound) transports the duo to the legendary Crow Fair (“the tribal heart of the Indian world”), Yellowstone, Butte, and places in between. En route, Donal encounters con artists and scalawags who cheat and steal, and benevolent people—hobos and others—who offer hope and shelter. Characters introduced early on turn up again later, and when time Donal and Herman squeeze onto the derelict last bus to the town of Wisdom, Mont., where they will work harvesting hay, their travails lead to a happy ending. Though this book lacks the deeper resonance of Doig’s previous novels, such as Dancing at the Rascal Fair and his classic nonfiction memoir, This House of Sky, it’s nonetheless a heartwarming, memorable story. Agent: Liz Dahransoff, Dahransoff & Verill. (Aug.)