Last Bus to Wisdom

Written by Ivan Doig
Review by Lucille Cormier

Last Bus to Wisdom is Ivan Doig’s final novel. The author passed away on April 9, 2015. The story is set in the Two Medicine Country of Montana, where orphaned Donal Cameron lives with his Gram, the cook on the Double W ranch. In the summer of 1951 Gram must undergo surgery. Her only option is to ship Donal off to their only living relative, her estranged sister in Wisconsin. And so begins Donal’s odyssey.

Indeed this is an “Odyssey”, with challenges and misadventures scaled to an 11-year-old Odysseus. But the characters are more authentic, and there is far more humor and pathos than in the classic tale. Donal’s trip on the Dog Bus, his doomed stay with Aunt Kate and Herman the German, his escape from same, and his surprise partnership with Herman as they retrace the trip back to Montana – are all salted with richly drawn characters that move the story at a rollicking pace. I won’t spoil the ending but promise that you will like it.

In Doig’s last “note to readers,” he describes himself as “the red-headed only child of a Montana ranch hand and ranch cook who died when he was six years old.” Like the red-headed Donal, he led a nomadic life following his father’s seasonal ranch work and carried the heart of a motherless child. Thus, one can’t help thinking that Last Bus to Wisdom is at least semi-autobiographical. Donal seems very much the embodiment of the young Doig, who also took a cross-country trip in 1951 and, like his creator, Donal is a storyteller extraordinaire; his tales are little cameos in the epic adventure.

Biographical or no, the author’s life experiences resonate throughout and make Last Bus to Wisdom a wonderfully bittersweet closing to a beloved author’s career.