Last Bus to Wisdom by Ivan Doig; Published 2015; Read Jan 5, 2017
The world lost Ivan Doig in 2015 to multiple myoloma. Fortunately he left behind 15 novels and several non-fiction books that will continue to provide us good literature to read and ponder. In the Last Bus to Wisdom, Doig starts this story in Two Medicine Country of the Montana Rockies, a setting for his previous work, and in fact the location is the Double W ranch owned by Wendell Williamson, nephew of Wesley Williamson who we met in Doig’s Prairie Nocturne. The story takes us on a trip east to Manitowoc, Wisconsin and then back to the west, all via Greyhound bus or its feeder lines.
We accompany Donal Cameron on these adventures that take place in the summer of 1951. They are initiated when Donal’s grandmother, a cook at the Double W ranch, needs an operation for “female trouble”. (He’s been living with her since his parents died in a car accident. ) Gram sends him to her sister, Aunt Kate, who lives in Manitowac, WI with her husband Herman. We enjoy Donal’s adventures on the Greyhound bus and his willingness and ability to spontaneously manufacture stories about himself, his family, and his travel plans. His cross-country travel to Wisconsin takes about the first third of the book.
Once arrived at the last station of his trip, we meet Aunt Kate, who turns out not to be who Donal assumes she is (Kate Smith) and eventually turns out not to be who we, and perhaps Manitowac, assume she is. His stay with Aunt Kate and “Herman the German” is an interesting strain for Aunt Kate and Donal while Donal and Herman the German strike up a nice companionship. Eventually Aunt Kate decides she can’t handle Donal anymore and she sends him back to Montana. What she didn’t anticipate was that Herman would go with him, showing up in the seat next to Donal shortly before departure.
For the last third of the book we learn more about Herman and Kate as we follow their travels, but we mostly enjoy watching the relationship between Donal and Herman grow and the ways they manage through a number of interesting obstacles. They’ve decided there isn’t a real need to take a straight line trip back to Two Medicine Country of Montana so they take a meandering course across the west. Herman has been a major fan of Karl May, a German author specializing in western novels. He has an interesting viewpoint of the American West and a desire t to see “the Karl May territory of Indian knights and pistoleer cowboys”. Donal decides Herman must experience Crow Fair, here a fictionalized version of a real annual event and similar to an event Doig attended with his parents in the 1950’s.
Sprinkled throughout the book are the contributions Donal is getting in his autograph book from the various characters he meets during his travels. Along with the signature, most contributors offer a rhyme or other catchy phrase that may include useful advice which sometimes comes via the interesting vernacular of the writer. Donal even catches an entry from Jack Kerouac, the encounter fictionalized of course, but with some of Kerouac’s actual, acknowledged, words. Doig also uses a quote from Keroac to open the book.
Doig eventually ties together some plot lines and finds a way to get his pair of characters out of the very hot water they find themselves as a series of mishaps toss them into stormy seas of the Great Plains. Donal must make a very significant decision at the end and tells us “I heard my decision the same instant the two of them did.”
Doig took the initial plot line from his own history—-he was sent to live with an aunt when his ranch-hand father was recovering from surgery and his ranch-cook
grandmother was going to the hospital to address “female problems”. But he indicates that his aunt and uncle were nothing like the characters he invents for us and Doig’s bus ride was completely unmemorable. He demonstrates that while his stories may be set in the west, he’s not a “western writer”. He gives us unforgettable characters and stories of how they deal with trying times and issues and does it with language we wish he could continue writing.