New to the library this season is Rob Kugler’s nonfiction debut A Dog Named Beautiful: A Marine, a Dog, and the Long Road Home, a memoir in which Kugler, a Marine, finds solace from the grief and stress of war by revelling in the friendship of his chocolate lab Bella. When Bella is diagnosed with cancer, the two of them embark on a cross-country road trip, to consume hungrily all the adventures they can before the inevitable parting.
The resulting book, written with considerable eloquence, is an emotional haymaker, as virtually all such books inevitably are. Dogs age five times faster than their human loved ones, so dog books are by their very nature also dog elegies. There’s a clean and unblinkingly honest kind of honest catharsis in that fact.
The element of adventure in Kugler’s book is likewise an evergreen attraction of dog books, of course, and it makes no difference how humble the adventures are. There are thousands of dog books on the market, and a great many of them feature nothing more exotic than romps in the back yard and naps on the couch. As the great book reviewer Orville Prescott once wrote, “dogs make everything new.”
It’s been nearly 90 years since the appearance of Virginia Woolf’s Flush, a slim, strange, and weirdly convincing impressionistic account of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s little dog of the same name – arguably the book that kicked off the modern trend. And in the ensuing century, that trend has produced a flood of books. Over sixty million American households have at least one dog tracking mud in the kitchen, hogging space on the bed, and eating irreplaceable heirlooms, and sometimes it seems like each one of those households has produced its own book.
Quite a few of those books have gone on to become beloved bestsellers, even on the nonfiction side of the chart. In 1995, Willie Morris’s My Dog Skip not only introduced them to the scrappy titular little dog but also reminded older readers of the joys of small-town life (in this case, along the Yazoo River) in a simpler age than our own. The great Newbery-winning author Gary Paulsen (of Hatchet fame) in 1999 wrote a brief and powerfully touching book called My Life in Dog Years, in which he does what so many lifelong dog-owners reflexively do: count back the years, the eras, not by dates on the calendar but by the dogs who filled the days.
One of the most popular dog books in recent memory is John Grogan’s funny, bittersweet 2005 hit Marley and Me, about a yellow lab who inspired love and exasperation in almost equal measure. The book went on to spawn movies, kids books, a whole line of merchandise – and its own fair share of heartbreak in its readers, since those readers will always get to That Chapter and bawl their eyes out.
Certainly that happens in Ted Karasote’s terrific 2007 book Merle’s Door, when philosophical, free-spirited Merle eventually reaches the end of his days. Although perhaps “always” is a bit of
an overstatement; at the end of Margo Kaufman’s utterly delightful 1998 book Clara: The Early Years, the opinionated and adorable little pug Clara is still going strong, demanding pigs-ear treats and getting them.
The military angle in A Dog Named Beautiful also has many exponents now, which is depressing but understandable, since the US has been in an open-ended war in the Middle East for the last 18 years. A hapless little dog named Lava, for instance, features prominently in Jay Kopelman’stough,tender2006bookFromBaghdadwithLove.A ndtheunforgettablemain character of Mike Dowling’s 2011 book Sergeant Rex is its title star, a brave and intelligent military working German Shepherd named Rex.
Naturally, as all dog lovers know, intelligence and bravery aren’t requirements for the goofy, head-over-heels love we feel for our pets (and sometimes even for our children, the little stinkers). No one would ever mistake a Miniature Schnauzer for a big strapping German Shepherd, for instance, and yet the little star of Tom Ryan’s Following Atticus, a Schnauzer named Atticus M. Finch, is perfectly game to accompany Ryan on a quest to climb all 48 of New Hampshire’s 4000-foot peaks.
A Dog Named Beautiful is the latest book to rejoice in that kind of connection, the latest account that tries to repay in words a debt that was incurred with face-kisses and tail-wags and unconditional love. Since all of these books are born in that love, each of them succeeds in its own way. And as for the love itself, don’t miss Our Dogs, Ourselves: The Story of a Singular Bond by Alexandra Horowitz (author of 2009’s truly insightful Inside of a Dog); it comes out in September, and it’s must-reading for dog people.
Steve Donoghue is a book reviewer and editor living in Boston (with his inquisitive little Schnauzer Frieda). His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and Kirkus Reviews, and he writes regularly for the Christian Science Monitor, the National, and the Martha’s Vineyard Gazette. He is a proud Weathersfield Proctor Library patron.