Luck is the star we steer by.
We called her Grandma with the Chickens. She was no-nonsense, yet also mischievous, with a hearty, deep down honest laugh. She wasn't a hugger, but whenever I walked into her home, heard the familiar "Howdy," and smelled her fried chicken and homemade biscuits, I knew I was loved. The lines on her face spoke of a hard life: one that moved her from farm to farm as my grandfather searched for greener pastures, with eleven children underfoot, and just enough money to keep a roof, albeit a small one, over their heads. There was no time to speak of love, she was too busy showing it.
So when Ivan Doig introduced me to Gram in Last Bus to Wisdom, I found I already knew her. This happens a lot with Doig; his characters feel like old friends. And like a true friend, they stay with you long after you've read the last page. Eleven year-old Donal (minus the d) Cameron, is one of those friends. As with Rusty in Doig's The Bartender's Tale, I found myself not only rooting for him, but wanting to adopt him.
We meet Donal aboard the dog bus (Greyhound) where he wrestles with homesickness for his Gram and nervous anticipation of meeting his great aunt Kate. It's 1951, and Gram's illness has forced him to leave the Double W ranch in Montana for Manitowoc, Wisconsin, to spend the summer with an aunt he's never met. Armed with an autograph book and all the money he has, which isn't much, pinned to the inside of his shirt, Donal experiences his first kiss, has a run-in with a squirrelly sheriff, and finds an unlikely ally, along with a slew of other memorable characters. Great Aunt Kate turns out to be nothing short of a henpecking bully, but Donal finds a friend in her beleaguered husband, Herman the German. Circumstances soon lead Donal and Herman back on the dog bus, headed for "somewhere south of the moon and north of hell," where they'll find wisdom and goodness in the most unexpected of places. Trust me, you'll be glad you came along for the ride.
Reading Doig reminds me of sitting around the table with my dad and uncles as they regaled us with tales of their youth. It feels like home. While The Bartender's Tale remains my favorite of Doig's work, Last Bus to Wisdom and The Whistling Season are in a close race for second. Sadly, this is his last novel, he passed away before it was published, and I feel bereft over the loss of his magical storytelling. I take comfort in the books he left that line my shelves, to be read time and again. I owe this man an ode.