“Rose In a Storm” by Jon Katz. Villard Books, a Random House imprint, New York, December 2010. Hardcover, 217 pp., $24. Available at Island bookstores and libraries.
My friend Holly theorizes that our current and seemingly endless fascination with things canine is an empty-nest syndrome. She says that now that the kids are gone, our age group spends more time and focus on our dogs.
Certainly when we’re changing diapers, carpooling, arranging play dates, and filling out college applications, Fido is a pleasant afterthought in our daily lives.
After reading “Rose In A Storm,” the seventh book about dogs by Jon Katz, one is left with the thought that those under-the-radar days may have been more enjoyable to old Spot because he or she was largely allowed to be what he or she is.
“Rose In A Storm” is a terrific yarn, a page-turner written well by a pro. Mr. Katz has authored 19 books in all and has a journalistic resume that includes The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and Rolling Stone magazine along with CBS News, online publications, and dog magazines and journals.
He’ll speak on Saturday, Jan. 29 at 2 pm at the Edgartown Library about his varied passions, which include celebrating libraries as well as his fascination with dogs. He’s included Edgartown in part because of his friendship with Jan Pogue, factotum of the Vineyard Stories publishing house here. His stop here is one of eight in his Love Our Libraries Tour that includes other talks in Northampton and Scituate.
Perhaps he’ll touch on a pet peeve — our urge to anthropomorphize (ascribe human characteristics and behaviors) to animals. “I’ll be talking about my work and ideas, and about libraries. I don’t speak as a dog lover or trainer, or to rescue or celebrate dogs, but as a writer exploring the emotional geography between people and pets,” he says in comments to the press.
This book describes life as it’s being experienced by a working dog, a border collie named Rose, on a working farm in upstate New York. Mr. Katz lives on a working farm in upstate New York. Called Bedlam Farm, his spread is complete with farm animals and dogs.
The central plot revolves around the efforts of Rose and her human partner Sam, the farm owner, to keep themselves and the livestock alive in their remote location during a three-day storm-of-the-century blizzard featuring hurricane force winds.
When Sam, a recent widower, is injured while removing snow from a barn roof, Rose, the remaining partner, carries on her work. The working out of the plot will hold you. It’s a good read even if you don’t like dogs.
What’s equally compelling and more fascinating to me is Mr. Katz’s description of how dogs are wired: Their relationships to humans, to other animals and to fate. How they communicate.
He says of Rose (and likely of all animals) that she “called up her own kind of memory, the images of many lives in many places that she carried in her head, heart and bones.” The specific experience of her breed but also experience with kin, coyotes, and wolves, other species of a common genus.
Rose’s genetics evolved to make her a working dog, herding sheep and cattle. She does not bother herding chickens or goats because her DNA and experience tell her they are un-herdable. She doesn’t interact with them. That’s how Rose’s mind works. Pragmatic. About the work. Driven by the work.
Mr. Katz describes Rose’s processes as a series of maps that she can see in her head. Some are eons old, others new and updated as circumstances in front of her change. A ewe giving birth is another sheep to watch over. The appearance of hungry coyotes on the farm periphery means she must protect the livestock.
Mr. Katz makes the point that animals such as Rose are informed by their work rather than emotions. They have attachments to people, deep loyalties, and bonds resulting from their makeup rather than, say, the personality of the human or the number of dispensed treats. Dogs are not humans. Humans who dig ditches can learn to sing arias for a living. Rose can only do the work she does, and in this book she does it remarkably.
Good books make us think. Rosie becomes a partner to Sam because he respects what she does. He does not require her to roll over, play dead, or shake her paw with humans. He does not deluge her with praise or treats. He gives her space instead. “The work is her reward,” he says.
Sam seems to know, from paying attention to her behaviors and reactions, why dogs do what they do and that they “see” what we can’t see in the world around us.
We think of puppies as untrained, but they arrive already hardwired with a thousand years of genetic experience. We don’t understand their training from long ago but this book reminds us that as we modify their behavior to live in our world, perhaps we would do well to consider that we need training as well.
Author’s Talk with Jon Katz, 2 pm, Saturday, Jan 29, Edgartown Library. 508-627-4221. Read Mr. Katz’s blog, The Bedlam Farm Journal, at bedlamfarm.com.
Jack Shea, of Oak Bluffs, is a frequent contributor to The Times.