It’s here! The second official meeting of the best — possibly only — online Pet Travel Book Club. I’m very excited because:
- We’re going to be discussing a terrific book, Following Atticus by Tom Ryan.
- The write ups — yes, plural — and questions are by a terrific reviewer, my friend Rebecca Boren, a freelance writer in Tucson who was a senior editor at Seattle Weekly and chief political reporter at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. And who was Frankie’s rescuer. In addition to the review here, she is discussing the book from a more literary and personal/somewhat less dog oriented perspective at A Traveler’s Library: Hiking with Atticus.
- There are prizes: A signed copy of Following Atticus and an unsigned copy.
Here’s how the prizes work: Anyone who comments on either blog gets a chance to win the book (first prize being the signed book, second the unsigned book), chosen by the Randomizer. Anyone who comments on both blogs gets two chances. The only thing I ask is that the comments on each blog be different.
Haven’t read the book yet or finished it? No worries. We’re not strict here.
You’ve got lots of choices on how to comment. You can: a) answer one of the questions that Rebecca poses; b) tell me what you do or don’t like about the book; c) provide a question for me to ask Tom Ryan, whom I will be interviewing (I’ll post a podcast here and on Animal Cafe). You have until midnight, December 9, EST to comment so you can get the book in time to give it as a gift.
One more thing: I’m paying for postage on the signed copy so I’m afraid I can only afford to send it within the U.S. But the publisher is sending the unsigned copy from their offices, so no limitations there.
Back to the Garden
by Rebecca Boren
One of the first rules I learned at Arizona Schnauzer Rescue holds that it doesn’t matter how carefully you restrict and hedge about and limit and insist on a state of desperation before you will take a dog in need. The possessor of that dog only hears three magic words, “I’ll take him.”
I knew I was going to love Following Atticus when author Tom Ryan recounted how he innocently said he would be an adopter of last resort and within a day found himself summoned to collect Max, an aging and neglected miniature schnauzer who Tom initially compares to a tottering “little gray sheep.”
Tom didn’t want a dog, not when as the owner, editor and sole employee of a muckraking alternative newspaper he was overworked, financially overextended, and teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown. And he especially didn’t want a “little yapper,” the only idea he had of minis from online pictures. No, he dreamed of owning a regal black Lab.
Of course, man and dog bond within a day: “He was rough around the edges, much like me, but he was real and I loved him.” The rechristened Maxwell Garrison Gillis settles into enjoying the life every dog should have, one of walks and treats and a loving community.
And that tale is just the prologue to the real story, the one where Ryan and a 20-pound miniature schnauzer named Atticus Maxwell Finch form the family Tom has always longed for, and embark on the quests that restored his lost innocence. “Max sent me on my way, but it was Atticus who led me home again, who taught me about love, about the kindness of my fellow man, about daring to dream and finding a way to love my embattled father…”
After Maxwell dies, Tom decides he needs another miniature schnauzer, having fallen in love with the breed. He eventually settles on the 8-week-old Atticus, bred in the hills of Louisiana, the one dog out of many prospects who looks like he doesn’t give a damn about posing for puppy pictures taken to show possible buyers. Following the advice of his breeder, Ryan carries Atticus everywhere for the first month they are together, then two months.
Little Atticus grows up to be an honored citizen of Newburyport, a dog who, leashless, makes the rounds of local homes and businesses collecting treats from newspaper subscribers and meatballs from his favorite Italian restaurant.
All that is entertaining – no one who has ever raised a puppy should miss Ryan’s experience with attempting to crate train a very determined little poopster – but still another prologue to the main quest.
Actually, two quests. First, came the “Winter Quest for the Cure,” in which Tom and Atticus sought to honor a recently deceased friend and raise money for cancer research by climbing all 48 4,000-foot-plus peaks in the White Mountains during one calendar winter – twice. Supporters would donate and designate a peak in the name of a loved one who had battled cancer.
The climb of 96 peaks in 90 days was an incredibly ambitious undertaking. Only one person – and no dog – had ever accomplished the feat of climbing all the 4,000 footers twice in a single winter. Fewer than 350 humans (and one dog before the venture was ruled too dangerous) had climbed all 48 during the winter months, over any number of years.
One year and a bout of sight-restoring cataract surgery for Atticus later, they tried it again, this time to raise money for veterinary research.
But the outer adventures merely set a framework for the inner quest – Ryan’s journey where he “became the man I dreamed of being when I was a little boy.”
Ryan may gave been a fearless journalist, but other terrors made up for it. This was a middle-aged man so afraid of heights that standing on a ladder to change a light bulb made him dizzy, someone who slept with a nightlight until well into adulthood and still panicked when things went bump in the night. Despite his dreams of rebuilding a relationship with his abusive father and of finding the love and comfort of family, he went years without speaking to father or eight siblings.
He found his salvation in the mountains, in solitude with Atticus. “When there was no one to talk to, I found myself in a walking meditation. I was not a religious man, but if I were, the woods would be my church, the mountaintops my altar.”
Atticus loves the mountains from the start, and takes to climbing like some sort of 20-pound floppy-eared mountain goat. “As far as he was concerned, we kept going up until there was no more up.” On top, the “Little Buddha” gazed at the views and meditated – Tom once times him at 45 minutes before his human interrupted.
Obviously, “little yappers” aren’t supposed to climb mountains – particularly not in winter. Some of the book’s funniest moments involve encounters with Manly Men who openly guffaw at the fat man and Muttluk-wearing little dog out in the wilderness—until little dog motors past them on a mountaintop.
Eventually the duo sold the newspaper and moved to the mountains full-time. Ryan writes, “I turned from a life where I wrote about the limits of mankind and instead chose a life without limitations, where middle-aged overweight men and little dogs can do the most remarkable things together – even in some of the most dangerous conditions in an ancient mountain range.”
- Tom skipped any kind of formal training with Atticus. He writes, “There were few rules, but they were important ones…Atticus was allowed to do whatever he wanted so long as he was not endangering himself or other people, he showed respect for my possessions, and he didn’t bother other people.” (p.31). Do you think formal training is necessary for responsible dog ownership?
- In one of the most wrenching sections of the book, Atticus goes blind from cataracts and Tom does not have the $4,000 needed for surgery. Nonetheless he is determined to restore Atticus’s sight. Have you ever had to make a decision about your dog’s health based on money?
- Tom did not want Max, or even know what a miniature schnauzer was, and was horrified to find himself collecting an elderly and tottering “little yapper.” But he fell for the renamed Maxwell Garrison Gillis the first day they were together. Have you ever wound up with a dog you didn’t particularly want? What happened between you?
Coming next month: Dog Walks Man, by John Zeaman. In some ways, it’s similar to Following Atticus: both authors admire the Transcendentalists, especially Thoreau, and wax philosophical on their surroundings. In other ways, it’s very different, as Zeaman ponders his opposite-of-transcendent neighborhood, the Meadowlands of New Jersey. And his dog isn’t especially heroic — or even, in some ways, central to the story. But Zeaman is a wonderful writer and has an artist’s way of looking at things.
And have I got a deal for you: A chance to purchase signed copies of the paperback and the hardcover editions at a discount, including shipping charges. To order a signed copy of Dog Walks Man directly from the publisher, contact Amy Alexander at 203.458.4541 or e-mail Amy.Alexander at globepequot.com. Signed hardcovers are $20, signed paperbacks are $15, and prices include tax and shipping.
And of course there’s Kindle edition, but no signing will be involved: Dog Walks Man by John Zeaman.