November 30, 2015 § Leave a comment
A guest review/interview from Eric Rasmussen:
Holy hell, do my kids want a dog.
My wife and I want to get them one, of course, because what sort of childhood would we be providing if we didn’t? A youth without games of fetch, dog slobber, and fights over yard cleanup, without important lessons concerning responsibility and mortality, is a pathetic youth indeed.
But still. My children are just old enough now that the entire house can manage its own bathrooming. Nothing chews on my shoes or requires late-night, mid-winter walks or needs medicine for worms. I take time to consciously enjoy all these aspects of my life.
So, when author BJ Hollars and I planned to meet to discuss his new book, From the Mouths of Dogs: What Our Pets Teach Us About Life, Death, and Being Human, I threw my kids and their side of the argument a bone. I invited Hollars to bring his dog over to our house for an interview. Perhaps talking to someone who explored the value of dog ownership and documented some of the most profound ways in which canines affect our lives, all while I witnessed the joy a dog would impart on my family, would finally inspire a four-legged addition to my household. Hollars and his dog, Cici, were more than up to the task.
Hollars brought his three-year-old son, too, and in my basement we created a scene that connected with the heart of the book, kids and fathers and dogs, barking (the dog) and fighting over toys (my kids) and interrupting (all the kids), with constant noise and movement and frequent pauses to make sure everyone was accounted for. Hollars discussed the changing relationship with pets that is plenty familiar to all young families. “As responsibilities shift, as our primary concern becomes the children, the dog often gets left to the wayside.” At that point, Cici excused herself to find my cat, but our concern over her whereabouts was overshadowed by gratefulness that she found something to do. “Some days I look at her when we’re sitting on the couch and I say, ‘Sorry, thanks for putting up with us.’ It used to not be like this.”
The big existential thoughts prompted by having kids and pets provided part of the impetus for this book. The rest of the inspiration came from the canines of Hollars’s youth. Sandy was the ideal stereotype of a childhood dog, and seeing her cremated remains sitting on a shelf at his parents’ house prompted additional thinking about the meaning of pets. Also, Hollars found a childhood journal that documented the time when a car hit and killed another of his dogs, Paws. His daily entries perfectly mapped the classic stages of grief. “That reaffirmed to me that the grief is not different. Maybe the depth could be different, depending on your relationship, but the emotion we feel for our pets is very similar, and I think it deserves the same kind of reaction.”
While the groundwork for From the Mouths of Dogs may sound somber, the book is built on a much more optimistic approach to the contributions dogs make to our lives. Hollars meets Bruiser, a disabled bulldog that is unable to walk without prosthetic assistance, then follows its trail to a fledgling animal prosthetic company. He visits a center dedicated to older dogs, then facilitates an adoption from them for a friend. He spends time with a blind woman and her service dog and sees the world from their perspectives. Other components of the journey are harder to stomach, like when he joins a County Humane Officer on an animal abuse investigation, and later witnesses a dog euthanasia. The book culminates in a family trip to Hartsdale Pet Cemetery and a quest to finally bury Sandy’s ashes, which takes Hollars on few surprising detours. Hollars introduces each thread with a lesson the characters in the book learned from their dogs, like “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” and “Live your life with hope.” If the lessons don’t strike readers as especially unique or profound, Hollars’s travels in discovering them will. The insights he achieves on his journeys, and those represented by the roles his son and his dogs play in the book, are engaging and valuable to anyone navigating a life with canines and/or kids.
“My shtick as a writer, at least as of late, is trying to take an exploration of something I care deeply about but don’t know everything about. That creates skepticism in the audience. But it also replicates that journey of the everyperson, of those who can say, ‘I have a dog, I walk around the block, I’ve never really thought about my dog in that way.’” Hollars employs a dynamic mix of memoir, research, and experiential journalism to make a case that dogs enrich our lives in all their moments, happy or sad. As Cici laid in front of me for a belly rub, then jumped up on my couch and managed to distract my kids from their video games, which is a monumental accomplishment indeed, Hollars made the strongest case he could on behalf of my son. “Despite the minor inconveniences and problems along the way, I think the journey is so incomparable. There’s not much that compares with owning a pet.”
Eric Rasmussen writes and teaches high school English in western Wisconsin. He will be starting an MFA program at Augsburg College in 2016. Until then he is finishing a novel and sending out short stories.