Although I loved books about animals when I was a younger reader, in my teens I backed off.
I realised that books in which sad things happen to the four-legged and furred or feathered characters were even sadder than the books in which sad things happened to human characters.
So, I steered clear of those stories for the most part. But sometimes one slipped under my radar. Erika Ritter’s The Hidden Life of Humans was one of the first to slip into the mix of my adult reading.
When I spotted this Shutterstock graphic for the Year of the Dog, I thought of Jack and China, Hercules and Flush, Almondine and Murphy, and Pearl and Junket.
I’ve forgotten most (if not all) of the names of the human characters in those stories, but I remember the names of their loyal companions. (It’s also true that I was born in the year of the dog. This is going to be a busy year for me apparently, lots to learn and lots to consider.)
I haven’t read all the books in the collage above. I missed that Anne White book but I loved her Junket when I was a girl; I’ve read others by Paul Auster, but not Timbuktu; the Jim Kjelgaard books were on my school library shelves for as long as I can remember, but I only pulled them from the shelves to look at the pictures and never read them (probably because they were about boys); and the same was true for Lad: A Dog, which still sits on my shelf unread (maybe this year – it would be perfect, wouldn’t it).
The others I have read and can recommend, from Erika Ritter’s humourous The Hidden Life of Humans to the not-so-humourous David Wroblewski’s The Ballad of Edgar Sawtelle.
Sometimes the books revolve around the dogs, sometimes, as with Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones and Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, I cannot imagine the characters having endured their stories without their canine companions, but the focus is on the humans’ stories.
Even though I am spoiler-phobic, I have been known to ask a friend to outline an animal’s story in a novel (leaving aside the question of human characters), before I read on.
This was all the warning I needed to avoid Andre Alexis’ Fifteen Dogs, for instance, but, in the end, Stephanie at Bella’s Bookshelves and I decided to read it anyway (because it seemed to be winning all the CanLit awards and we were the last two Canadian readers to brave it).
Many of the books I enjoyed as a girl were mostly about the people, but I think, now, that the reason I enjoyed them (the characters and their stories) is because of their four-legged companions.
Laura Ingalls was an all-right sort, because she was not as incurably “good” as her sister Mary, but their love of Jack settled it for me. (There was no Birchbark House for me as a young reader,unfortunately, although I would have loved Little Frog’s crow companion too: I was raised on settler narratives.)
When I thought about writing this post, I was inclined to begin with “I am actually a…person” and you can see where that was headed.
But I am disappointed in the tendency to make things about choosing, about taking sides. I am frustrated with the idea of living in an either/or world, of having absorbed the lesson of needing to declare an allegiance, silently creating a conflict where one need not exist.
Perhaps sometimes that is unavoidable.
Certainly, sometimes that *is* unavoidable.
But here, at least, I can insist on my right to inhabit a space which is not about either/or but, rather, about and/and.
Yes, I am a cat person and I am a dog person too. I am, furthermore, a squirrel person, possum person, racoon person, crow person, and and and…