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The Good Dog – a choice between good and free?

McKinley is a malamute who lives in Steamboat Springs, Colorado with a boy named Jack. There is no question but what McKinley is a very good dog: obedient, orderly, attentive, and loyal. Then Lupin shows up. Lupin is a she-wolf, or maybe half-wolf hybrid, and she lives the wild life with a wolf pack. She begins to tease and encourage the dogs of Steamboat Springs to leave their homes and human companions to join her pack. Of course, McKinley is tempted…

Anthropomorphic fiction can take a number of directions, ranging from the cartoon animals who are often little more than humans in disguise to the stories where a human author tries to give us the realistic animal’s viewpoint entirely. In The Good Dog, Avi has chosen the latter approach and the entire book is told from McKinley’s viewpoint. We see how the world changes with a dog’s powerful senses of smell and hearing, and how a dog’s interactions with humans are limited by inability to speak even though he may understand much of what he hears. Some human activities, such as reading, remain mysterious to McKinley. Human technology, an example being the refrigerator, is simply magic that he accepts.

On the other paw, this protagonist has a strong sense of loyalty and responsibility. Even though he learns what it is to run with a pack, and live outside the bounds of fences and the human routines that are governed by clocks and custom, he never completely forgets his boy Jack. By the time he makes his final decision, readers can’t help but understand how much the dog must give up no matter which way he chooses to turn. McKinley’s dilemma shows that he has learned what it means to be a leader and a teacher, both among his peers and for the humans in his life.

Avi does a very fine job of depicting the dog’s eye view of the human world, though his representation of communication between dogs is perhaps a bit too anthropomorphic and verbal. The dogs speak to each other, in their own language of course, which Avi translates to normal English for us. I can’t help but suspect that the nuances (and limitations) of canine communication fail to come through very well here, though certainly the author’s approach makes the story much easier to follow.

We have heard this story before, of course. Jack London’s brilliant and beloved novels The Call of the Wild and White Fang tell this same story in two different ways. The domestic dog becomes wild in the first, and a wild wolf becomes domesticated in the second. The setting, language, and length of London’s work is not always suited to younger audiences, but the more advanced readers who have finished The Good Dog and are looking for more stories like it could be steered toward London, or perhaps the many dog stories of Albert Payson Terhune. Teen and adult readers may also enjoy the north country tales of James Oliver Curwood, most particularly Kazan, or Baree, and perhaps The Grizzly King.

We should note that while this book was first published in 2001, the last wolf packs roaming the Colorado Rockies were exterminated before 1942 or so. Avi’s story is told without many references that would allow us to date the setting, giving it a flavor compatible with many small towns and suburbs even in much more recent times. No doubt this helps young readers to relate to the story without too many questions, but parents and teachers may wish to be prepared for questions about actual wolves. There have been wolf sightings reported in Colorado as recently as 2007, but none have positive confirmation. Conservationists would like to see the wolf returned to more wild lands in the American west, but public opinion and resistance make this seem unlikely.

Rating: 4 of 5 possible apples appleappleappleapple

Avi [pseudonym of Edward Irving Wortis]
The Good Dog
Atheneum, 2003 paperback (ISBN 9780689838255, $6.99)
Also available in many other editions and as an audiobook

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