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2017-03-08 Steve Gardiner Book Review: The Last Bus to Wisdom

In his final book, Ivan Doig introduces us to Donal (Donald without the D, he says), a youthful narrator much in the style he used in both This House of Sky and The Bartender's Tale. Donal lives with his grandmother, but when Gram becomes ill and needs surgery, she puts 11-year-old Donal on Greyhound Bus for Wisconsin to stay with her sister. Travel on his own leads him to meet many interesting characters and live through multiple adventures.

 By asking people to sign his autograph book, Donal meets cowboys, Indians, crooks, and hoboes. He loves his autograph book and even hopes that he can get enough autographs to be included in Ripley's Believe it or Not. About the sayings people wrote in his autograph book, he said, “I was finding out that people came up with surprising things like that almost automatically when presented with the autograph book. It was as if they couldn't resist putting down on the page-their page, everyone got his own, I made sure—something of themselves, corny tough it might be, and happily signing their name to it.”


One thing he learns is that many times, people are not who they appear to be. He assumes that Kate, Gram's sister, is a famous singer, but she is far from that, and he ends up running away, only to be accompanied by her husband Herman who turns out not to be her husband. The mystery of identity continues, especially when Donal and Herman camp with a group of hoboes who all have nicknames and vague backgrounds.


Another thing Donal learns is that when things of value are involved, trouble follows. He is almost robbed soon after boarding the Greyhound, the “dog bus” as he called it. Later, he and Herman are robbed by a con man who is dressed as a minister. Even an arrowhead that Donal found becomes his prized possession, but leads him to trouble. These misadventures with valuable things are a special concern for Donal who lives in fear of the orphanage or the poor house.


After running away from Wisconsin, Donal and Herman visit Crow Fair, then Yellowstone National Park, before joining the hoboes headed to the hay fields in Montana. When they board the last bus to Wisdom, Donal is headed for a situation that lets him meet a famous rodeo cowboy, and prove himself a valuable addition to the ranch.


He was amazed at his own progress. He said, “In that summer of flying calendar pages, Big Hole haying was a streak of time, when I take account of myself then, that I can scarcely believe packed so much into my life in so short a period. I suppose it would be like a kid of today thumbing through the holdings of some smartphone that shows him himself and realizing that a couple of years and robust inches have been slipped onto his pouty eleven-year-old self without notice. Electrifying, to use a word that still holds true of such a shot of overnight growing up.”



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