- Putting on the Dog:Canine Characterization in Fiction and Nonfiction
I'm writing a collaborative novel in which dogs become hyperintelligent and reset the existing mammalian pecking order, good-naturedly overtaking and enslaving humans. I know dogs but haven't lived with one since I was young, so it seemed important to review the literature. I wanted the dog characters I created to be vivid and accurate in their dogginess. Because the dogs in my novel are filled with determination and pluck, bursting with ideas about how to reshape the world to suit them, I wanted to read books with similarly self-possessed canines at their center.
What I found was that books with dogs as main characters are, in fact, not necessarily books about dogs but books about humans' relationship to dogs. Sometimes dog characters are used as lenses to bring new clarity to the human characters; other times the dogs are objects for humans to fight over; yet other times dogs function primarily as symbols—of loyalty, of humbleness, of steadfastness, of violence. Dogs can also serve as lower-stakes stand-ins for people. You want a really dramatic moment in [End Page 197] your book, one that will show that you mean business but not take away any of the important characters? Kill the dog. You want to demonstrate just how irredeemably evil a character is? Have him kill the dog.
Mostly, dog stories are about a human looking at a dog rather than a shared gaze or a dog looking back at a human. A dog's relationship to the world is profoundly different from a person's, starting with its lower vantage point and continuing through its sensory capabilities, lack of opposable thumbs, strong sense of power structures, and relatively low intelligence. Dogs live with us and seem to enjoy doing so, but it's hard to know exactly what their embodied experience feels like. I read for answers.
I was nervous to undertake this project because I'm tender-hearted toward animals, and if there's one thing I know about dog books, it's that you can never count on a dog to live. There's a whole subgenre of educational dying-dog novels for children, which strikes me as a great cruelty. I can't remember the characters or situations in novels I read just last year, but Where the Red Fern Grows, the story of a little boy and of his two beloved redbone coonhounds that come to grief at the claws of a mountain lion (Dan the coonhound gets the worst of it; the boy's mother carefully washes his exposed intestines with soapy water and uses a sewing needle to stitch up his abdomen, though of course sepsis takes him shortly afterward and Ann the coonhound dies of grief on his grave) will follow me as long as I have a memory. More dead dogs: Old Yeller, Sounder, Marly, Cujo, the Hound of the Baskervilles.
To save you, dear readers, from a similar unpleasant experience, I have offered a helpful note at the end of each section about whether or not the dog dies and, if it does, how that makes me feel. The books reviewed here, two works of fiction and two of nonfiction, push past the dead dog as heart-tugging plot element, offering nuanced explorations of the human-canine bond.
Shiloh, published in 1991, was children's author Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's sixty-fifth book and her most acclaimed. It won the Newbery Medal from the American Library Association, and it's easy to see why, for the wonderfully rich storytelling voice, rendered in dialect, of the young protagonist, Marty. The novel is set in poor, rural West Virginia, and the lives of the people it depicts are not easy. Marty and his family worry about having enough...