Ivan Doig’s new novel graces AB4T as the starred review of the week. Recently, I wrote about the number of western novels with teen appeal, and mentioned Doig’s The Whistling Season, a 2007 Alex Award winner. The Bartender’s Tale returns to the rural setting of that novel — Two Medicine Country, Montana — where once again an adult narrator tells the story of a formative time in his youth. This time the narrator looks back to 1960 rather than 1910.
Doig’s website includes a synopsis, discussion questions and background notes on the novel. In the latter he writes about the bars (and bartenders) he experienced as a child while tagging along as his father hired work crews from among the men who frequented them.
Adult/High School–Rusty and his single father, Tom, “the best bartender who ever lived,” have a relationship built on unconditional acceptance and trust. They exist together in companionable contentment until “that year of everything, 1960,” when Rusty turns 12. Tom works long hours at his Montana bar, and Rusty’s solitary existence is forever changed when Zoe, the daughter of the new café owners, arrives in town. Rusty and Zoe form an instant friendship that is profoundly rich, deep, and funny. The diverse cast of characters who make up the regulars at Tom’s bar are secretly observed from an upstairs vent by Rusty and Zoe with much interest and commentary. Not only does Zoe come into Rusty’s life that summer, but so does Delano, who is working on the Missing Voices Oral History Project of the Library of Congress, and Proxy, an unsavory “friend” of Tom’s from the old days, along with Proxy’s daughter, Francine, whom Proxy claims is Tom’s daughter. When Proxy insists that Francine move in and help Tom run the bar, Rusty and Tom’s lives are turned upside down. The captivating prose is almost poetic at times and Doig is an expert at transporting readers to a distinct time and place. His characters are vividly drawn and memorable. Though there are no teens among them, and there are some references that will be unfamiliar to teens, there is much to love here. Doig’s writing, compassion, and humor make this book impossible to forget.–Jane Ritter, Mill Valley School District, CA