With the passing some years ago of Wallace Stegner, Ivan Doig is probably the writer who now most personifies the West. English Creek, Dancing at the Rascal Fair, and Ride with me Mariah Montana are among my favorites. It was with great enthusiasm that I began to read his latest, The Whistling Season. It was for that reason, perhaps, that I was initially disappointed. It had the tone of a juvenile book, at first. There's nothing wrong with that—I write juvenile fiction myself. But this seemed just a note off from where it belonged.
True, the book is about a juvenile, through his reminiscence 50 years hence. There was something that did not ring true. I don't know if I got over it, or if the book improved. More likely I was picking something up in the narration that wasn't just right.
Ultimately, the book is not a disappointment, though not his best work. Early on you could see the happy ending rolling toward you like a train in the distance: recently widowed farmer with three boys sends for a housekeeper on the basis of a cryptic ad. Surprise, surprise, she's quite good looking. The real surprise is that she brings her brother with her. He turns out to be much more than we expect, and in many ways is the center of the book.
Much of the novel takes place in a one-room Montana schoolhouse, beginning in 1909. There are several sub-plots that provide the action. The real story is about the kind of education one could get in that kind of setting. A couple of years ago I was privileged to have the opportunity to edit the history of a similar school in Idaho. That kind of grade-spanning education, all but lost today, had much to recommend it.
There is some entertaining wordplay throughout the novel. We come dangerously close to learning a little Latin. In the end, the entire book turns on the definition of a word. A bold step that a lesser writer might not have pulled off. Doig does it with ease.
If you've read much Dawkins, (The Blind Watchmaker, The Selfish Gene, Climbing Mount Improbable, and others) it will come as no surprise to you that he is no fan of religion. What is new in The God Delusion is that the evolutionary biologist goes beyond rational disagreement with those who believe, and argues that religion is dangerous and should be opposed on nearly every front. He recognizes that religion has been an important force in art and literature, but gives it credit for little else in the realm of good.
Dawkins makes no distinction between radical evangelical Christianity, the Taliban and Jihadist Muslims. The worldview of each is equally intolerant of any other belief, and so ultimately equally dangerous.
Dawkins spends about half the book examining historical and philosophical arguments for the existence of God. In doing so, he takes apart the reasoning of many men, noble and ignoble, most of whom are dead. In a historical review such of this, arguing with the dead is unavoidable. Dawkins spends a bit too much time arguing with the more recently dead Stephen Jay Gould, a fellow evolutionary biologist and sometimes nemesis, than is strictly necessary.
One thing that particularly rankles Dawkins is the concept of children being born into a religion. They grow up, typically, thinking that their parents' religion is the one true faith. How lucky for them. Dawkins seethes at calling a four-year-old a Catholic or Muslim child. We do not call them a Democrat or a Republican based on their parents' convictions. They are allowed to make that choice for themselves when they mature. Religion should be a matter of choice, not indoctrination, according to Dawkins. Of all his contentions in this particularly contentious book, this may be the least likely to gain traction.
Because religion in its multitude of forms is so widely practiced, Dawkins assertions will seem radical. They will not, however, seem irrational.
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