As told through the eyes of 11-year-old Donal Cameron, life can be quite an adventure, and so LAST BUS TO WISDOM makes for a fascinating read.
The orphan protagonist is shipped off, alone, across the country when his grandmother must put him in the care of his great-aunt. A Montana boy accustomed to the wide open spaces meets a great-uncle who is obsessed with America's West, as learned through the pages of fiction. When boy and man decide that there is no living with "the Kate", they set off to discover what lies on the far side of the Mississippi.
Herman the German becomes Donal's sidekick as they ride the bus from sleepy Wisconsin towards the sunset, so that Herman can see what the West really looks like. Along the way, Donal collects autographs for his memory book, thinking that he'll compile an impressive collection that would earn him a mention in Ripley's Believe It Or Not. His naivete forms part of the charm of the novel, the innocent viewing the world through eyes not yet clouded by experiences.
The novel is a delight, a beautifully crafted bit of yarn spinning that takes in a remarkable number of threads and weaves them into a book that cannot be put down. The cast of characters that Donal and his great-uncle Herman the German encounter are true characters that feel real, as if you'd see such riders on a cross-country bus if you took a trip yourself.
The people who populate the novel are ordinary folk, the commoners who know a thing or two about hand-to-mouth existence and how to survive in a harsh world when you don't have much money. It is a pleasure to spend some time with those who are not obsessed with Manhattan real estate valuations or the latest fashion trends. Those who scrape for a living tend to be more interesting people, and Ivan Doig's characters are all quite interesting.
Over the course of the novel, as life hands them setbacks and assistance, Donal discovers what it is to love and be loved as the kindess of strangers helps him escape from one harrowing escapade after another. This is, of course, the wisdom that he acquires on his travels as he progresses from boy to (almost) man.
The ending is happy, the premise nearly improbable, but the writing so sparkling that you are happy to suspend disbelief and go along for the ride. This was one of the best books I have read in a very long time.