For Picks of The Litter, a regular book review series, Ranny Green critiques “From the Mouths of Dogs,” by B.J. Hollars. University of Nebraska Press.
Be prepared: This is the Full Meal Deal. Pun intended.
Hollars, an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire, serves up a wide assortment of morsels in a meticulously researched manner.
For the author, this literary journey is personal, from memories surrounding the loss of his own dog in the early going to scattering some of its 20-year-old ashes on a Northeast vacation, which took him to the Hartsdale (N.Y.) Pet Cemetery, the country’s largest and oldest facility of its kind.
This is a collection of compelling essays touching a wide array of subjects, from following the emotionally high-stress duties of an animal-control officer (including watching a dog being euthanized); to a family’s struggle to create a one-of-a-kind orthotic for Bruiser, its beleaguered English Bulldog who could not stand on its front legs; to one couple’s commitment to saving senior dogs.
The author emphasizes in the Prologue, “If pets have taught me anything, it’s that we should never shy away from joy for fear of losing that joy.”
But rest assured, there is plenty of angst in this soberly reflective but always fair-minded book that is crafted in two parts – Lessons Learned and Lessons Lived.
For Bruiser’s owner, Tammy Gurklis, a former veterinary technician who, along with her husband, Ken, it was all about finding a means to give the dog a chance at quality of life. This meant finding a firm capable of designing and manufacturing a “buggy” that would comfortably provide Bruiser a chance to move about freely. The first attempt by a small Eau Claire firm proved unsuccessful but the craftsmen continued to refine and reshape the unit until Bruiser began to move smoothly about.
Hollars inquires what lessons were learned through the process and Tammy Gurklis replies, “Dogs like Bruiser teach us that you can’t believe in can’t. You have to be willing to try.”
Other chapters in Lessons Learned deal with Luna, a service dog and her human, Dr. Katherine Schneider, who is blind and also suffers from fibromyalgia. Over four decades she has owned nine Seeing Eye dogs, each with its own distinct personality.
When asked to explain the difference between a guide dog and a pet dog, Schneider answers, “It’s something called intelligent disobedience. Basically, it means that if it tell Luna to move forward into the street and it isn’t safe she has to disobey. Learning when she’s disobeying intelligently and she’s just disobeying when she see a hamburger wrapper on the ground, well, that takes at least six months to figure out.”
During the interview Hollars grasps that Schneider’s dogs have all had a mind of their own, to which she shares a story of a walk she and her dog once took with a “directionally challenged” sighted friend.
“I had my dog, my sighted friend and my GPS,” she recalls. “And we were on a corner downtown, trying to figure out how to get home. The dog was thinking one thing, my directionally challenged friend was thinking another, and the GPS was off thinking something else. I thought to myself, 'I got too many votes here.'
“I went with the dog and the dog was right.”
His final gripping chapter in Lessons Learned focuses on Hartsdale Cemetery, founded in 1896, and heartfelt stories surrounding the founders, present operators and some owners who have chosen to bury their pets there.
As you can sense, this terrific work centers as much about owners as it does their pets – whether it’s the throwaway mentality of owners seen by frustrated shelter workers or the never-give-up, lifetime commitment exhibited by many others.
Hollars’ ability to vividly establish the mood and the setting for each interview leaves the reader feeling he/she is right alongside absorbing the scenario and grasping the heartfelt, from-the-gut responses of the interviewees.
One of the most frank deals with the owners of Purrl, a cat killed by two dogs (one of which was the animal Hollars saw euthanized earlier). They discuss the grisly scene, the emptiness in their home and their feelings about the justice meted out.
“From the Mouths of Dogs” is not tear-jerking but reflects a tough realism in each powerful profile. There are tailwinds and headwinds to the emotional flow that moves smoothly throughout while as Hollars wraps the human-animal bond in a rich context.