The Dog Who Saved Me, a novel by Susan Wilson. St. Martin’s Press, $25.95. Available at Bunch of Grapes in Vineyard Haven, Amazon, and at Island libraries.
Dog books have been on publishers’ “must-have” lists for seven or eight years. They’ve been scrambling for titles. Even Danielle Steele’s publisher trotted out a forgettable pet memoir by the best-selling romance novelist a couple of years ago.
But now the best in the field are emerging in a genre popularized by James Herriot more than 40 years ago. Garth Stein, certainly Jon Katz, and the Island’s Susan Wilson have ascended to the top of the canine genre.
These authors can write, plus they know both the human condition and canine makeup, and they write passionately and authentically about the symbiosis between humans and dogs. These qualities are essential for success in a fictional genre in which the reader already knows a lot about the subject matter. We may not be experts in international espionage or crime-solving, but we sure know our dogs.
Last week Ms. Wilson published The Dog Who Saved Me, her ninth novel and fourth consecutive novel with a dog as a protagonist. One Good Dog, Ms. Wilson’s first canine novel, had several months on the New York Times bestseller list. Her second, The Dog Who Danced, received the Maxwell Medal for Fiction from the Dog Writer’s Association of America in 2012.
The Dog Who Saved Me is a terrific read that drops us immediately and deeply into a small rural Massachusetts town, immersed in the lives of the Harrison family, a dysfunctional group.
Cooper Harrison is a veteran Boston K-9 cop who lost his canine partner, and his mojo, after a suspect they had cornered detonated a bomb strapped to his body. In the aftermath, Cooper recovered from his physical wounds, but worsened his emotional ones with copious doses of whiskey, and in turn lost his marriage. He’s returned to his hometown of Harmony Farms at the urging of his high school buddy, now the police chief, to become the town’s reluctant animal control officer.
Cooper gets it together in Harmony Farms, despite a reunion with his hapless dad, the former town drunk; a wild older brother fresh out of prison; and a somewhat feral yellow Lab who’s been living in the woods after being shot by his hunter. Cooper is determined to seek justice for the dog and find out whodunit.
Ms. Wilson provides us a multilayered plot in which Cooper and the unnamed yellow dog heal each other, while Cooper’s cop nose smells that his recidivist brother has returned to the drug-selling business and is placing his father in danger.
You don’t have to have a dog, or even like them, to enjoy Ms. Wilson’s books. Her dogs are not preposterous characters. They are dogs who act within their abilities and personalities. The magic occurs as we read Ms. Wilson’s words and recognize that we love our dogs because they extend apparent and unconditional love to us.
Love has extraordinary healing qualities. Cooper also finds romantic love in this book, which helps him in his journey back to the world. His trip back is not without mind wrestling and a series of flashbacks to his childhood, replete with examples of failed parenting and a savage sibling. Cooper also learns in his return to his hometown that the family shame that drove him away from Harmony Farms has no power except the juice he provides. He concludes that in reality, most people forget, forgive, or weren’t paying attention in the first place.
Ms. Wilson allows Cooper to find his way on his own terms in this tale, including the telling of the bomb blast that took his canine partner’s life, an event that leaks from him throughout the book, detail by detail, as he is able to tell it.
For me, the appeal of Ms. Wilson’s books is the perspective she provides: the dog as a realistic witness of the human condition. Dogs pay attention and make quick, clear decisions on what they see and sense. Babies are like that too. They know what and who they like. And like dogs, they seem to know it right away.
We should all be so smart.