Tuesday, April 9, 2013

A Dog's Journey : Book Group Book Review

Why does that Alaskan malamute always escape from her yard to wander miles from home?  Why is that Chihuahua so fiercely aggressive toward strangers?  Why does that mixed breed down the street always cower and shrink away when I approach?

You could seek the answers to these questions from animal behaviorists, breed specialists, or dog whisperers.  Or you could get inside those dogs’ heads.  If the latter option seems a lot more interesting and a lot less costly to you, A Dog’s Journey by Bruce Cameron might be the book you’re looking for. 

This is Cameron’s second novel written from the perspective of a dog.  His first, A Dog’s Purpose, led the best-seller lists for weeks at a time.  In that novel, Cameron’s unnamed protagonist lived and died many times, being reincarnated into a variety of dog bodies and learning from each experience to become a better dog, until he (or sometimes she) fulfilled his ultimate purpose by returning to Ethan, the boy he loved, and shepherding him through his old age, rekindled love, and eventual death. 

In this sequel, the same dog-spirit doesn’t so much evolve as apply what she/he has learned to each new situation and time period faced by his new human CJ, Ethan’s granddaughter.  CJ has a troubled life, influenced by her vain, careless, and treacherous mother, Gloria, so our dog must remain ever vigilant while bearing the brunt of Gloria’s wrath.  In this book, the dog intentionally wishes to come back after each death in order to protect and guide the self-injuring and groundless but equally warm-hearted CJ.  Supported by CJ’s loyal friend Trent, the dog (Buddy, then Molly, then Max) rescues CJ from repeated traumas through his fiercely devoted love and courage.

As one might guess, the most dominant feature of this novel is its use of perspective.  You either buy into the notion that you can hear all the human dialogue and the dog’s thoughts, or you don’t.  If you don’t, you may as well walk away from this book.  True, it’s quite a contradiction to be reading the dog’s thoughts in English, a human language that he/she doesn’t understand, but once you get used to this conceit, the characterization of our protagonist offers quite fascinating and heartwarming opportunities to empathize with another species. 

Try this sample on for size and see if you feel you could suspend your disbelief. 

Here, teenage CJ is escaping from her mother, who has illegally and surreptitiously spent nearly all of the million-dollar trust fund left to CJ in her father’s will.  As CJ angrily flees cross-country, “Molly” – at this point a poodle mix – narrates:

    We took a long car ride.  I elected to curl up on the front seat with my head within easy reach of CJ’s hand, and she’d touch me every so often.  The love flowed through that hand and eased me into untroubled slumber.  It was so much better than being in the place of the barking dogs.  I hoped I would never have to go there again.  I just wanted to be right where I was, a front-seat dog with my girl, CJ.
    We stopped at a place with outdoor tables and wonderful food smells.  “It’s not too bad out here if I keep my coat on,” CJ said as she tied my leash to a table leg.  “You’ll be okay, right, Molly?  I’m just going in there for a second.  Don’t look at me like that; I’m not leaving you.  You’re a good dog.”
    I understood that I was a good dog.  I made to follow her as she turned, but the leash stopped me.  I strained against it as CJ went through som glass dorrs and into the building.  I didn’t understand, and whimpered.  If I was a good dog, I should be going with CJ!
   “Hello, Molly.”
   I looked around and there was Shane.  I did not wag.
                                                                                    (Cameron, 161-162)

So, if you can enjoy inhabiting Molly’s perspective and accept that a dog can think in English but not understand when people speak it, you’ll be fine. 

And for me, personally, it’s worth suspending disbelief.  As is evident in the above quote, diction and syntax should be no obstacle to most readers.  The eventfully episodic plot also keeps us moving along at a breezy pace, while experiencing sensory details from a dog’s nosy perspective brings readers the opportunity to enjoy unique description too. 

Anyone who loves dogs and wonders what goes on in their heads will enjoy this book, and any mature, balanced middle school student should be equipped to encounter the delicately indicated issues of bulimia and psychological abuse – not to mention the problem of pet overpopulation and its attendant euthanasia rate in the U.S. – that form a backdrop for the plot.

My verdict?  For those seeking a light, fast-paced, and heart-warming read, I give A Dog’s Journey two paws up.


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