In this great debate about CATS vs DOGS in literature (see CATS vs DOGS, Part 1, Miaow!), one thing is clear: humans have loved cats and dogs and lived side by side with them for more than 10 000 years. While we quickly learned that cats are only as tame as they choose to be (try keeping a cat inside a house with open doors), dogs and humans created their own, distinctive narrative.
These cousins of wolves, jackals and foxes have evolved to become our inseparable companions, but I think they’re only truly happy when earning their keep. I think that to be truly fulfilled and healthy, dogs need a sense of purpose. This really separates them from the cats they share homes and neighbourhoods with, and it explains why we have put them to work herding livestock, guarding our lives and homes, helping us to hunt, performing police and rescue work, and even guiding us when we lose our sight.
With that kind of profile, dogs could have wound up typecast as heroes in every story ever written. Instead―and in contrast to the fictional world of cats―I think that something subtler has shaped our tales about dogs and the humans they are so dependent upon (and who are so often dependent upon them); I think that these are woven around the relationship of trust and confidence that connects us. In the best and most heroic canine stories, dogs live up to this trust; in the most frightening or mysterious, they turn on us, usually with good reason.
The beautiful and often heartbreaking bond between humans and dogs sometimes means, in life as in fiction, that one risks life and limb in order to save the other. Sometimes, it requires overcoming impossible obstacles. And then, there are times when it’s simply about silent, knowing companionship; about simple, stolid presence.
There are lots of great books and movies from the “life and limb” department.
The early twentieth century brought us Jack London’s two epics novels, Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906). While both stories are set in the Yukon (where London lived for a year, collecting material for the books), during the Klondike Gold Rush, the latter is the story of a wild wolf-dog’s domestication, while the former is the story of Buck, a domesticated dog living in California, who is abducted from his home and made to work as a sled dog in Alaska, where he eventually reverts to his primitive instincts*.
(*The Library has a graphic adaptation of the novel in its collection, which is perfectly suited to this very visual and visceral story).
As is often the case, history eclipsed fiction when, in 1925, the real life drama of a diphtheria outbreak in iced-in Nome, Alaska, required an extraordinary collaboration between humans and dogs, to deliver the life-saving serum that was available in Anchorage, more than 1000 miles away, to the sick (mostly children) in Nome. With no options left, and in temperatures dipping as low as eighty degrees below zero Fahrenheit, several dogsled teams, led by such celebrated mushers as Norwegian-born Leonhard Seppala, Charlie Olson and Gunnar Kaasen, undertook the extreme and punishing journey from Anchorage to Nome, in a relentless relay.
Still, as brave as they were, these men reached their destinations because of the self-sacrificing efforts of the dogs that pulled their sleds. Of all of these, Balto is by far the most famous, largely because he led the last two legs of the trek, sometimes relying on scent rather than sight. But to many, including Kaasen himself, it was Togo, who guided the journey’s longest and most back-breaking and dangerous middle stretch, who was the greatest hero of all.
The memory of this noble collaboration between man and dog is celebrated every March in the Iditarod Dog Sled Race.
Stories like these remind me what a soft touch I am, and how dogs― more than any other creature, I think―with their life spans that are a fifth of ours, seem designed to break our hearts. Surely, there isn’t a child alive who wasn’t frantically cheering for all 101 of those Dalmatian puppies, fretting that they might not make it safely past Cruella Deville and back to their parents; or else willing Lassie to finally come home!
And then there are the stories in which the fate of man and beast are tied in such a way that there’s no hope of a happy outcome. One of these is the nevertheless beautiful story of Sounder, from the eponymous novel by William H. Armstrong, which I first saw at a drive-in one summer, rather than read. Sounder’s life is so fused with that of his sharecropping master (and master’s son), that from the film’s first frames, I could feel anguish building inside me, and still couldn’t look away.
That’s probably why so far, and in spite of the glowing recommendations of the movie I’ve received from friends and students (many of whom consider it their favourite movie), and notwithstanding the books and documentary footage dedicated to his memory that I’ve peeked at, I don’t think I can watch the movie about Hachiko, the magnificent, real-life dog who, following the sudden death of his beloved master, was unable to find a purpose to his life other than honouring his master’s memory, much like the Ronin of feudal Japan.
Have you seen the movie? If so, then kudos to you. You’re tougher than me.
Fortunately for me at least, there are also dogs, both real and imagined, that are endearing AND funny. In this category, there’s Marley and Charley.
Marley, you probably recognize from the movie Marley and Me, that was, in fact, based on the John Grogan book originally titled Marley and Me: Life and Love with the World’s Worst Dog. The summary of Grogan’s 2005 book about his ridiculous adventures with the indomitable Labrador retriever who stole his heart, ends like this:
“Is it possible for humans to discover the key to happiness through a bigger-than-life, bad-boy dog? Just ask the Grogans.”
Well of course, the answer is YES.
Next, there’s Charley, the standard poodle who accompanied John Steinbeck as he “set off to explore the American zeitgeist, from the Northeast to the California redwoods, from Maine to New Orleans. It’s often not a pretty picture, but having Charley along for the ride more than makes up for it.”
I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that many dog-loving readers would be perfectly delighted to have Gromit, of Wallace and Gromit fame, move in with them tomorrow. Surely, he’s the most sensible, dependable, endearing, wry, and silent (though his eyes speak volumes) dog in the history of fictional dogs. And boy, does he earn his keep!
Sometimes, though, in canine fiction, things really go wrong and when they do, it’s canines of the dental kind that become an issue (as well as incisors and molars). This is most definitely the case in The Hound of the Baskervilles, the third (and probably most famous) of the crime novels in which Sherlock Holmes is put to the test. In the novel, though the reasons for the glowing and ferocious hound’s nocturnal release upon the moor are elucidated, its viciousness is never really explained.
But it’s because of his owner’s neglect that Cujo, the ill-fated Saint-Bernard, is infected with rabies, and as is often the case in Stephen King’s fictional worlds, once that pact between man and dog is broken, a sinister force is unleashed upon the people of Castle Rock.
In CATS vs DOGS, Part 1, cat detectives abounded. They also appear in canine fiction, but with a different, more personal twist.
For instance, in Susan Conant’s Dog Lover’s Mystery series, amateur detective Holly Winter and Rowdy the malamute only become partners in solving crime as a result of the murder of Rowdy’s master, in the first book of the series. The partnership that develops in Dead and Doggone, the second novel of the series, is thus built upon a true sense of mutual devotion.
Another unique twist in canine mystery fiction is that of the dog as silent witness to a crime. This is very much the case in Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness, as well as in Carolyn Parkhurst’s The Dogs of Babel, which sounds especially intriguing, judging by these descriptions from the book’s summary:
“Paul Iverson’s life changes in an instant. He returns home one day to find that his wife, Lexy, has died under strange circumstances. The only witness was their dog, Lorelei, whose anguished barking brought help to the scene – but too late. […] Reeling from grief, Paul is determined to decipher this evidence and unlock the mystery of her death. But he can’t do it alone; he needs Lorelei’s help. A linguist by training, Paul embarks on an impossible endeavor: a series of experiments designed to teach Lorelei to communicate what she knows. Perhaps behind her wise and earnest eyes lies the key to what really happened to the woman he loved.”
It also reminds me of a majestic first novel, by David Wroblewski, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, which appeared in this blog last July (see TALL, DARK AND SILENT), and in which dogs are silent witnesses to the tragic downfall of a family.
But perhaps it doesn’t have to be either/or? Keep in mind that in Sheila Burnford’s The Incredible Journey, three pets: Lauth, the young Labrador retriever, Bodger, the old English bull terrier, and Tao, the Siamese cat, cooperate and rely on each other in order to find their beloved masters.
Suggested books and films:
b) Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time,
c) Dean Koontz, Watchers
d) Paul Owens, The Dog Whisperer
e) Paul Auster, Timbuktu