By Heidi Simmons
“Last Bus to Wisdom”
by Ivan Doig
There is nothing quite like the fame and allure of the American West. Its history and lore has called to many around the world who long for freedom and adventure. In Ivan Doig’s final novel, Last Bus to Wisdom (Penguin Random House, 464 pages), cowboy grit and Indian magic change the life of one boy.
Set in 1951, Donal Cameron is 11 years old — soon to turn 12. He lives with his grandmother who is cook to the staff and crew on the Montana Double W cattle ranch, which sprawls below the rookies. Donal loves the ranching life, but when his grandmother has “woman” problems, she has no other choice but to send Donal to the only relative she has in Wisconsin.
Before he leaves he begs the rancher to keep him on as a teamster swearing that he can manage and drive a team of horses during the wheat harvest. Unfortunately, that job is now done by machines, and the rancher kicks Donal out. But Donal doesn’t leave without the lucky obsidian arrowhead he found on the ranch — taking it back from the landowner before he slips away.
Donal has to take a bus just to get to the “dog” bus. His grandmother has packed his things in a wicker suitcase and pinned some money to the inside of his shirt pocket. Trying to be brave and not feel alone and worried, he gets on the Grey Hound for the home of his great aunt Kitty and her husband “Dutch.”
Along his way, Donal collects little ditties with autographs from the people he meets on his long trip. And an eclectic group they are: a sheriff taking his brother back to the hoosegow, a kind, elderly couple off to visit their son; a sexy cigarette-smoking waitress and service men on their way to Korea. He even crosses paths with Jack Kerouac who is happy to sign a page.
When he arrives in Wisconsin, aunt Kitty is a huge woman and he mistakes her for the famed signer Kate Smith. Her husband, “Dutch” insists his name is Herman and talks with a thick accent. He is Herman “The German.” Donal is given the attic for his room and he and his great aunt struggle to get along.
Soon, she has Donal learning canasta. But Donal can’t win with his aunt – not in cards or any other way no matter how hard he tries. His only ally is Herman, which Kate resents.
Kate decides Donal is too much for her to handle and sends him back. But there is no back anywhere. His grandmother is recovering at the charity hospital and she no longer has the job at the Double W. It means foster homes and the orphanage for Donal.
After Donal boards the dog bus for the journey back to Montana – trying not to cry and feel at all sorry for himself— he discovers Herman has left Kate and will be going with him. And, they can go wherever they want as long it’s out West. A fan of the western writer Karl May since he was a child, Herman longs to experience the “West” first-hand.
Herman and Donal have a wild adventure that seems to get them
into far more trouble than if they tried to avoid it. They meet cowboys and Indians. They become hobos and hay cutters. Donal drives a team of horses. But together, they form a friendship and an alliance that pulls them through challenging roadblocks and difficult events.
Told in first-person, Last Bus to Wisdom is a wonderful story of bravery, sacrifice, and friendship. It’s not only just about the adventure, but also the power of storytelling. Donal could easily be a young author Doig exploring what it means to write something meaningful down on paper.
Although the story is narrated by the adult Donal, it is the child who shows the reader the most important summer of his life — that time just before he turned 12 years old when the world once again flip-flopped. As unreliable a narrator as the boy is, it’s what gives the story so much emotional power and endearing charm.
Donal’s bunkhouse upbringing may get him in hot water, but it’s also what gets him out of it. His tall tales and half-truths are beguiling and entertaining as he just tries to survive his ordeal alone in a world ruled by adults.
Last Bus to Wisdom, transports the reader back in time. It’s the American west with small towns and lots of open space. Author Doig writes beautifully. There are passages that are poetic and noble. Some of the ditties written in Donal’s autograph book made me cry.
Donal is filled with wisdom without even knowing it. He is wise beyond his years as he absorbs and observes life unfolding around him. But the title refers to Wisdom, Montana where Donal and Herman come to the end of the road. It’s here they discover truth, love and happiness.
Thank you Ivan Doig for the wonderful adventures, hours of joy and beautiful wisdom. RIP.