Straight to the heart

‘What a Dog Knows’ becomes more and more clear in Susan Wilson’s latest novel.


This is the best book I’ve ever read.

Better than “War And Peace,” you might ask? Or “The Sun Also Rises” or “Anne of Green Gables”? With books we enjoyed so long ago, it’s difficult to say what meaning they’d hold for us now. We can only judge by what works in the present moment, and I can comfortably say that Susan Wilson’s 12th book, from a canon that includes “The Dog Who Danced” and “One Good Dog,” both landing on the New York Times bestseller list, has every ingredient that goes straight to the reader’s heart.

In the first place, Wilson has resurrected a wonderful character, Ruby Heartwood, from her fourth novel, “The Fortune Teller’s Daughter.”

Ruby’s journey through life will put you in mind of the recent bestseller — both as a book and a movie — “Nomadland.” Wilson’s protagonist, too, has a house on wheels, in this case a Volkswagen Westfalia. All her life she’s run from terrible childhood traumas, a cruel orphanage, teen terrors, but she settled down long enough to deliver a daughter born of rape. Yikes! Don’t let this chase you from a wonderful chance to sink into its pages, because here’s what that time yields:

Ruby is a psychic, a real one, although she senses her gift is fading. And that’s a problem, given that she makes her living traveling to street fairs, carnivals, and Renaissance fairs, where she sets up a table and reveals to her clients messages from the universe, one secret at a time, as if springing from the special inlaid box of each person’s soul. 

But why has the gift fled? As she observes about herself in the very beginning of the narrative, “Now for someone who dresses in a gold brocade caftan and reads tarot cards in a conical tent with a pennant flapping in the breeze, she looks, well, dated.” Or, more to the point, “Her powers of interpretation seem to be on the decline — as in gone.”

And then something amazing happens, right dab in the second chapter, so there’s no setting this book down until it’s finished, or at least that’s what this reviewer recommends.

Chapter One sees Ruby through an electrical storm that swooshes her off a rural detour and leads her to park beside a lake. Sweet! And we’re left with a nomadic lady who asks herself the usual questions for anyone in her position: Are you nervous? Being all alone? A woman and all?

Unsurprisingly, Ruby has wrangled these issues a million times before. “Ruby is a recluse with an active social life,” she concludes, again for the millionth time. A call to her grownup daughter, Sabine, gives her a chance to touch base via FaceTime with her two darling, thankfully normal grandkids, Molly and Tom. It turns out Sabine had, in the past, resented all the vagabonding days of her childhood, and has therefore settled down to a nice, conventional life. In the process, she largely ignores her own sparks of intuition. Yes, she has them. And her own wee daughter is showing signs of it too. Yet, between Ruby, Sabine, and young Molly the love is there, absolutely there. All that matters. They bid each other a fond goodnight. 

Ruby parts the curtains in her Westie and watches the storm over the lake. A tingling sensation tells her a new source of energy is manifesting in her body and soul.

“Auguries and signs. Portents and forebodings.” A synesthesia of feelings and sensations grips her as she can hear, far off, a fish jumping. “Something is about to change.”

In Chapter Two the boffo change arrives. Ruby hears a voice asking to be let in, but when she opens the door, all she spies is a dog. Admittedly, an adorable dog; judging by the book’s cover, one of those fantastically sweet-faced Cavalier spaniels. A voice goes on asking to be let in and, as our fortune teller goes on glancing around to find a person behind the words, seeing no one, the spaniel springs inside, leaps up on the bench, circles three times, and makes herself at home. 

And Ruby hears everything the dog is telling her. In plain English words. It’s not as if the dog’s mouth is moving; don’t expect a cartoon figure to be deployed by Disney technicians. The dog establishes that Ruby, in spite of all her bluster about independence, could use companionship. The human remonstrates, the canine insists. 

She names the dog Hitchhiker, and fires up the van for a good long journey. And yet … a sign up ahead alerts her to a farmers market, just what she always needs to pitch her tent and start telling fortunes. 

They’re in a town called Harmony Farms, and the joke on Ms. Ruby is how one situation after another will force her to stay. And guess what? Ruby’s psychic talents have grown into this exponential field of hearing all animals speak to her. It’s not long before her old list of psychic offerings, including tarot cards and tea-leaves readings, is augmented by her new ability to communicate with animals. Not only dogs, but cats and horses as well. 

And who wouldn’t want to keep reading about Ruby’s new pursuits? See what I mean about the best book ever? 

Susan lives in Oak Bluffs with her husband, David Wilson, retired and beloved high school English teacher at MVRHS. Together they have a Cavalier spaniel named Cora. Susan admitted in a recent phone conversation that these days she knows exactly what this darling pooch is thinking and trying to articulate. 

“What a Dog Knows” is available at Island bookstores and, of course, online. Chances are, wherever fun reads are supplied all around the country.