Last Bus to Wisdom, by Ivan Doig

Ivan Doig’s last book, appropriately titled Last Bus to Wisdom, is an unpredictable and boisterous road novel.  It brought back many memories of my childhood in western Kansas in the same era.

Donal Cameron is a 11-year old being raised by his grandmother on a Montana Ranch in 1951. But when Gram has to have serious surgery, she decides to ship him off to her sister Kate in Manitowoc, Wisconsin for the summer.

On his way to Wisconsin, Donal first rides the Dog Bus, as he calls the Greyhound, wearing his best rodeo shirt. Along the way, he engages with everyone he sits next to, soliciting literary gems for his cherished autograph book, which he carries everywhere. He has a $5 dollar bill in his pocket and three $10 dollar bills pinned to the inside of his shirt, along with two changes of clothes in a battered wicker suitcase.

During the ride, he lives on a steady diet of Mounds candy bars, receives his first real kiss from a good-natured waitress named Letty, and meets Harv, her boyfriend who is on his way back to jail, handcuffed and accompanied by his stepbrother, a mean-spirited sheriff. Other fellow travelers, who he easily interacts with, include young soldiers off to the Korean War, some nuns, a group of obnoxious boys on their way to summer camp who sang “great, green gobs of greasy grimy gopher guts”, a song I haven’t heard since I was a kid.

With his shock of red hair, freckles and gift of gab, Donal carries an arrowhead for luck. But, he just escapes being robbed, and missed his transfer in the Twin Cities. With luck from his Arrowhead, however, he was transported by a good Samaritan who drove him to the next bus stop so he could continue on to Wisconsin.

Upon arriving at Aunt Kate’s, he’s let down when he realizes she is not the famous singer Kate Smith, his bedroom is in the attic, she feeds him soggy cereal, and his main entertainment is playing canasta with his aunt’s friends. She is a manipulative presence who abuses her ‘husband’ Herman and condemns Donal to jigsaw puzzles for recreation. Shortly after arriving his loses his pocket money and feels doomed to a summer of endless boredom.

But Donal hits it off with Uncle Herman, a one-eyed German, who is hen-pecked by Kate. Herman routinely escapes to his greenhouse where he reads novels of the old west. During World War II, Herman was an opponent of Hitler, stowed away on a ship to the US, and lived for decades with Kate as an undocumented alien.

After only a month into Donal’s stay, aunt Kate decides to ship him back to Montana, and an uncertain fate awaits him.  But as it turns out, Donal isn’t traveling solo – Herman has decided to fly the coop, cashes his disability check and joins him on the bus, heading for all manners of adventures. Donal asks him where they will go, and Herman says “Anywhere’s.” Just so it is “that away,” pointing toward the West.

Wearing new cowboy hats they lope all over, getting into scrapes in Yellowstone National Park, seeing pow-wows and rodeos, getting Jack Kerouac’s signature in the autograph book, encountering swindlers, and evading the law. But as posters start to appear announcing that Herman is an enemy alien wanted by the FBI, the pair find themselves on the run.

After their money is stolen (again), Donal talks a doctor into providing bus fare to Wisdom, Montana.

The story picks up steam in the final pages, where the unlikely pair bunk with hobos arriving for the hay harvest.  Soon, they are adopted into the itinerant clan and obtain haying jobs.  Fortunately, their travails lead to a happy ending.

Doig does a superb job of bringing this bygone era alive for the reader. His richly drawn characters that move the story at a rollicking pace. I truly enjoyed this memorable book.

— Ken Johnson

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