The title page for this book published by Coach House Books in Toronto refers to the book as An Apologue which the Oxford Modern English dictionary defines as “a moral fable” and the Oxford Companion to English Literature defines as “a fable containing a moral lesson”. A fable is defined as a short story devised to carry a moral lesson and often having marvellous or mythical characteristics and frequently employing animals as characters. Fifteen Dogs is definitely as billed.
Before it begins there is a delightful alphabetical list of the Dramatis Canes beginning with Agatha and ending with Rosie followed by maps of The Beach and High Park showing the locations the dogs live and travel in inside the city of Toronto. The Wheat Sheaf pub is marked clearly on the map and the beginning of the dogs’ journey at the veterinary clinic not far from the pub is also labelled clearly. (I do appreciate maps that are useful for the reader!)
Here’s how it starts:
“One evening in Toronto, the gods Apollo and Hermes were at the Wheat Sheaf Tavern. Apollo had allowed his beard to grow until it reached his clavicle. Hermes, more fastidious, was clean shaven, but his clothes were distinctly terrestrial: black jeans, a black leather jacket, a blue shirt. ”
“While at the tavern, the gods began a desultory conversation about the nature of humanity. For amusement, they spoke ancient Greek, and Apollo argued that, as creatures go, humans were neither better nor worse than any other…have no special merit.”
“Hermes took the opposing view, arguing that, for one thing, the human way of creating and using symbols, is more interesting than, say, the complex dancing done by bees.”
The discussion continues outside the tavern and Hermes wonders “what it would be like if animals had human intelligence.”
Apollo thinks the animals would be as unhappy as humans. He points out that “intelligence is a difficult gift.” He bets Hermes a year’s servitude that animals (any animal of Hermes’ choosing) would be “even more unhappy than humans are, if they had human intelligence.”
Hermes takes the bet on a condition: ” if, at the end of its life, even one of the creatures is happy” Hermes is the winner. Apollo accepts the terms and because they are walking near a veterinary clinic at Shaw the obvious choice is dogs. They agree to allow the dogs to keep their memories and presto! “the god of light granted ‘human intelligence’ to the fifteen dogs who were in the kennel at the back of the clinic”.
So, think about it. What do you know or assume about canine intelligence? Click on the link and see which breeds rank highest for instance. Or check this out. Surprised? even a little? I was but I don’t know why…never thought too much about the details I guess. How much might the story have differed if cats had been the chosen animal? (just an amusing aside)
Rosie’s first noticeable experience of change was to “wonder how long she would be in the place she found herself.” Rosie is a German shepherd bitch according to the Dramatis Canes. Next she “wondered what had happened to the last litter she’d whelped. It suddenly seemed grossly unfair that one should go through the trouble of having pups only to lose track of them.” She began to distinguish colours and was enchanted by a colour akin to bubble-gum pink. “To her dying day, no colour ever surpassed it.”
Atticus, a grey Neapolitan mastiff, dreamed about a field full of small, furry animals. He often had this dream. He caught an animal and brought it to his master who would kill it but not so this particular night. Instead, Atticus bit down on the neck of one of the animals an “it occurred to him that the creature must feel pain. That thought – vivid and unprecedented -woke him from sleep.”
Majnoun, a black poodle, barked softly and thought about the the lock on Rosie’s cage across from him. He stood on his hind legs and lifted the long loop keeping the bolt in place by pushing his paw out of his cage,then pushing the bolt back. (“It took him a number of attempts” but he eventually opened the door to the cage.) Not all of the dogs could replicate Majnoun’s accomplishment: they were too young or too impatient or too small. Some would not leave their cages even when the doors were opened. They were too old or too tired or too confused to think clearly and “hesitated to choose liberty”.
They had a very basic language: ‘forgive me';’I will bite you';’I am hungry’. Now they needed more ways to talk about what was happening to them. They were bewildered at first: they understood that they were free when the clinic door closed behind them but what were they to do with “the world before them a chaos of noise and odour whose meaning now mattered to them as it had never mattered before?”
“Where were they? Who was to lead them?”
In the early days after leaving the clinic, there was collective change. The way they communicated changed and this was particularly true for Prince: “He was constantly finding words within himself, words he shared with the others.” They all became better hunters and “more discriminating scavengers”. Their territory included “Parkdale and High Park, from Bloor to the lake, from Windemere to Strachan.” They discovered time and created a den in High Park, “a clearing beneath a cluster of evergreens. It smelled of pine gum, dog and urine.”
I did not expect to get drawn into this story so quickly nor to invest in the individual animals to the extent that I did. It is like an Aesop’s fable for a present-day generation in which more and more dogs have become pets and/or pseudo-children and/or social status symbols and/or full-fledged family members. If nothing else, it should make you think differently about your canine companion or about other animals in general. After all, we are animals too. What would it be like to have such a drastic change occur in our lives virtually in a flash? It might even make you wish you could have given one or more of these particular canines safe shelter. Which one would you choose? I think I would choose Majnoun or maybe Prince or maybe Frick and Frack when they grew up….hmmmm.
If you like dogs and reading, you will like this book but just a caution, like all animal stories it is not for the weak of heart or stomach.
Some sample passages from Night Stages which, hopefully, will entice you to read it for yourself:
“There is a black-and-white photograph of Kenneth standing in sunlight beside a prairie railway station. He is loose-limbed and smiling, happy maybe, or at least unconcerned about the journey he seems poised to take.”
“But Kenneth is older than he looks in this image: he has already taken and abandoned several points of view. He has been to Paris, Milan, Madrid.”
“In spite of how things may look, this is a photo of arrival, one taken just after disembarkation, when the airport mural was still bright and alive in his mind, the paint on it hardly dry.”
‘Kenneth’s shadow is a thin ghost on the quay. But there are thousands and thousands of miles inside him.” (pages 3 – 5)
“Tam recalls the bright new American aircraft she had sometimes been instructed to pick up at Prestwick in Scotland: Mosquitos often, or Lancasters. Those planes had set out for the transatlantic part of the journey from the lace that is now directly below her, as Ferry Command had been situated at Gander. She had always wanted to pilot a transatlantic flight, but it was understood that no woman would ever be invited to do so, regardless of her skills or accomplishments, so the idea of Gander had remained a vague point of intersection to her…” (pages 11 & 12)
“…she stands at the end of the hall outside the washroom and gazes across the passenger lounge toward a colourful wall, only a part of which is visible from this vantage point. She wonders if what she sees is a large map, but as she walks into the room itself it becomes clear to her that she is looking at an enormous painting: oranges and greens and blues.” She turns to look out the window at the airliner then “turns away from the window back to the mural.” Info re Gander mural
“Niall had been born in a market town on the Iveragh Peninsula of County Kerry - the Kingdome, he called it – and except for university and a handful of years working for the Meteorology Service in Dublin, he had never lived anywhere else…Niall had himself once made the journey to America, seeking his brother. He had bought a ticket to New York and spent his holidays tramping through the streets of that city from flophouse to flophouse. …So Niall too would have spent some time in this airport…he would have heard the hollow sound of his footsteps on these aluminum stairs, the slap of his shoes on this damp tarmac.” (pages 12 – 14)
“The house where Niall’s brother had been raised still stood near the heathery slopes of Garanne…the brother had lived there in his later childhood, and into young manhood under the care of the country woman that Niall would refer to as Kieran’s Other Mother, and was happy there, Niall had said, in a way he had never been in his own home.” (page 23)
“During the first year after his mother’s death in the autumn of 1943, things had come to an impasse regarding Kieran. He had spent the previous six months avoiding school and collapsing into rages whenever anyone suggested he do anything at all…the father of the boys became prematurely old and absent…coming and going from the house more often now that there was no woman in it, Gerry-Annie watched the child’s behaviour with a look of disapproval but said nothing.She had no children of her own but came from a family of eleven…it was Annie who made the decision…(after several weeks of no tantrums) she approached the boys’ father in the courteous manner that was natural to a country woman, but without a hint of deference to the fact that she was employed by him. “I’ll be taking himself home with me,” she said. “It’s for the best. ” (pages 75- 81)
“It’s my doing,” he said flatly, “all of it.”
“How could it be, Niall?” She recalled him using words such as fault and loss in relation to his brother. Lost him completely, he had said.
“No,” he said now. “you can’t understand. It is my fault.”
“You don’t want to be with me,” she said. “I can understand that.”
“Oh, I want to be with you,” he said. The anger had not left his voice, but his expression was open, torn. “It’s my brother I am talking about. But I want to be with you. And this is my fault as well.” (pages 175-176)
“She tried to conjure this rogue brother, wanted to position him on the map she was constantly revising in her mind, the map of Niall’s character. But she hadn’t enough information to make sense of this preoccupation.” (page 176)
“Keiran’s body had changed into that of a young man, and his mind had acquired more knowledge, and therefore, a more complicated way of thinking. The bicycle, however, was a source of comfort in that it could be relied upon to stay more or less the same. Kieran knew every sound it made under any condition, how the tires purred on a good road, hissed in grass on a hillside too wet and steep, really, to be negotiated, rattled when descending a stony mountain track. Some days, when he had been riding for a good length of time, the turning of the speed-blurred wheels beneath him seemed to be an extension of his own body, as if the bicycle had become an essential fifth limb. He went out riding in any kind of weather: a day without speed was for him a day when his self felt heavy and encumbered, as if he were trying to walk through slowly churning, waist-high water. And he feared that, unless he moved forward, his mother would begin to speak to him from that water.” (page 179)
“She [Tam] looks at the mural…she pictures the artist finishing up, descending from the scaffold, stepping back, and looking at the long sweep of what he had done. Something would have struck him then, a sense of loss: the knowledge of an ending. How intimate he would have been with the skin of the wall, with every inch of it…Still, he would have collected his brushes and paints. He would have climbed down from the scaffolding. ”
Urquhart’s literary mural includes the geography of Kerry, a story of two brothers and of lovers and family, the Irish Rás Tailteann the stages of which connect with the novel’s title (“night stages” refers to the socializing after the actual stages of the race), and the aircraft of World War II as well as the mural at Gander Airport and its artist and also the airport’s place in history with snippets of Irish folklore tossed into the mix as well.
I started out intending to choose passages which revealed the beauty of the writing and ended up with more passages that revealed savoury tidbits of the story and characters which might catch your interest. And so I must leave it up to you to find the other passages! Enjoy the journey!
P.S. On the back of the jacket of the hard copy, Alice Munro says “Jane Urquhart’s writing compellingly depicts the sense of place in human lives” and Claire Messud says “Urquhart has a great gift…for the melding of ideas, events and individuals into a significant whole.”
What do I say? Jane Urquhart has painted a beautiful mural.
“Tenderhearted and enchanting, Etta and Otto and Russell and James takes us on an incredible cross-country journey – from dusty land to stormy sea, from small moments of sweetness to grand gestures of love.” Marjorie Celona, Giller Prize-nominated author of Y – see my review of Y here.
Etta and Otto are a couple: the story begins when Etta leaves Otto a letter in blue ink and it says
I’ve gone. I’ve never seen the water, so I’ve gone there. Don’t worry, I’ve left you the truck. I can walk. I will try to remember to come back.
She also left a pile of recipe cards written in blue ink. “So he would know what and how to eat while she was away. Otto sat down at the table and arranged them so no two were overlapping. Columns and rows.” Otto thought about going to find her but he didn’t. He did go and get the globe and figured out that if she went east she would have to walk 3,232 kilometers and if she went west to Vancouver it would be 1201 kilometers. He knew she would go east. “He could feel the tightness in the skin across his chest pulling that way. He noticed his rifle was missing from the front closet.”
Including Otto, his parents had fifteen children. If one counted Russell who spent much of his day at Otto’s home, they had sixteen children. Otto lived on a farm. Etta lived in town and had only one sister, Alma.
Etta and Otto didn’t actually meet until Etta became the school teacher at Otto’s school. Otto and Russell took turns going to school and the days one of them didn’t go the other helped with the farm work at Otto’s place and walked to school and back home with the other boy. Russell’s parents had lived in Saskatoon but his father died and his mother went to work in Regina and sent Russell to live with his aunt and uncle. Russell was five months younger than Otto.
“The day after Etta Kinnick’s appearance at Gopherlands (the school she would teach at), Otto went to meet Russell after school. He had finished giving the cows their drops (for the dust in their eyes). …He waited, leaning aganst the overlapping wood of the school’s siding, along with all the dogs from the vrious farms that came to meet their masters. …Together they all listened to the scraping and gathering of students at the end of their day.” When Russell came out he greeted Otto
“Otto! he said. This new teacher! This new teacher…Come on, let’s head home now. I want to talk to you now, away from here a bit. He put a hand on Otto’s should, steered him away…Otto, she’s wonderful, said Russell…Why didn’t you tell me she was wonderful?
I told you we had a new teacher. I told you she was nice.
Nice isn’t the same as wonderful.
No, I guess not.
I asked so many questions. I’m going to be noticed, Otto. I’m going to read all the books I can find. I’m going to be the best student she’s had…Otto,don’t you think she’s wonderful.
Otto shrugged. He wasn’t sure really. Miss Kinnick seemed to be a good teacher. And she had nice calves. But she was a teacher. Their teacher.
I think she’s wonderful,Otto, said Russell. Just that, wonderful.
Shut up, Russell,said Otto. But he was happy. Russell didn’t get excited very often. It was nice to see.”
The conversation continues, but Otto has more important matters on his mind:
“Russell, said Otto, interrupting, Miss Kinnick is wonderful, it’s true, yes, and will continue to be, and we can talk about that lots and soon, but right now, I need your help. I need to steal the radio.”
The story of “stealing” the radio is a good one and an even better story involves the relationship that develops over their entire lifetimes between Etta and Russell and Otto. When we first meet Etta she is starting out on her journey to the water and she is carrying with her in her coat pocket a paper on which is written
Etta Gloria Kinnick of Deerdale Farm. 83 years old in August.
Will she get to the water? Will Otto and Russell just wait or will they try to find/follow her? Who is James?
This is a great adventure and will speak to the reader on many levels. I will add it to my list of well-written and innovative novels about aging. I highly recommend it. It is Emma Hooper’s first novel and I am impressed at her ability to write these characters so well.
1) from William Wordsworth, The Prelude
Fair seed-time had my soul, and I grew up
Fostered alike by beauty and by fear.
2) from Emily Dickinson, “770”
I lived on dread – [she wrote]
To those who know
The stimulus there is
In danger – other impetus
Is numb – and vitalless –
(from pages 5 and 6 of the novel)
“Of course he’d considered going Outside thousands of times – as he’d considered executing a standing double backflip or walking around with his feet magnetized to the ceiling or chainsawing a trapdoor in the floor – but had never dared. Even when he lobbed their garbage bags as to the curb as he could manage from the front foyer, or watched shirtless neighbourhood boys plow their BMXs through the meaty summer heat, he’d never been sufficiently tempted. Mailmen over the years had asked why he and his mother were always home, and Will often replied, “Why are you a mailman?” with one raised eyebrow, which usually shut them up.
The real reason was that he was her protector. Her guardian. From herself. From it: the Black Lagoon. It wasn’t like he was trapped. The doors were not locked. She made no rules, issued no commandments, declared no penalties, and exacted no punishments. Staying Inside was something he’s invented, intuited, for her sake, to keep her from falling so deep she’d tremble and explode and weep all her tears and go dry and insubstantial as the dandelion fluff that occasionally coasted Inside like tiny satellites. He’d always known that if fear took her for good, he’d be left treading water forever in the ocean of life with nothing to buoy him.”
Will’s mother, Diane, hadn’t always needed protection. She’d grown up in Thunder Bay and had a twin brother, Charlie. She’d been to New York with Arthur. She’d had a promising career as a film maker and a retrospective of her career was being planned. So how did she become agoraphobic? How did it happen: this intense all-consuming fear of the outside world? And how did it effect her son?
“How easy it is for a life to become tiny. How cleanly the world falls away.”
I wasn’t sure I wanted to know the details but I continued to read anyway because I needed to understand. And Will is an irresistible narrator.
Will and his mother lived initially in Toronto. Arthur deposited generous support cheques in her account every month so that was not a problem. She had had a plan: it was about finding her balance and maybe making another film. She still owned the house in Thunder Bay that she and Charlie had bought. Charlie worked in the grain elevators and was saving money to go to university but he died in an accident at work when he was 24. Diane was the only surviving member of her family and she couldn’t bear to sell the house.
In Toronto when Will was a toddler there had been an incident on a subway platform. She “still couldn’t summon the incident in her mind without panic spreading in her like laughter in a crowd. She knew she’d brushed against true madness that day because it was huge and blunt and screaming.”
“She’s blamed the city, its wilderness of signs and traffic and sounds, its flip book of faces and lightening storm of a million brains. So she packed up their apartment and moved Will north to Thunder Bay” where she hadn’t returned since Charlie died. She ought a car and drove the fourteen hours to Thunder Bay listening to the CBC for as long as the signal held ad then singing along to old tapes. She was surprisingly tranquil behind the wheel. She was a hive of activity when they reopened the house.
“The work did her good, and this was a period of reprieve.”
Driving gave her a sense of freedom but then crossing a highway in the Thunder Bay area she confused the brake and the accelerator. So she began to avoid the highway but new rules emerged: “No roads over a certain speed limit. No night driving. Then no left-hand turns. She hugged the shore of the right lane, never risking her car in the path of an onrushing vehicle …each night her mind burbled with the close calls of the day, the inadequate traffic bylaws, the numbers and speeds and the physics of it all. And after weeks of this she perceived driving for what it truly was: an impossibly complicated and lethal activity. ”
She gave up driving, sold the car and learning that the local public transportation system would not fill the gap, she and Will began to take taxis. Soon she could no longer tolerate the taxis and their drivers and so that was when “ordering from home began in earnest.” She became a master at getting things delivered: she knew exactly when to use the words “severe condition” when placing an order.
Then began another stage of withdrawal – pulling completely into the inside. The avoidance of risk was a major consideration and the front yard and the back yard became too full of danger and so they stayed inside. “It was almost relieving, this simplification, and there followed some relatively peaceful, untroubled years.”
So there you have much of the explanation of how the situation developed. But you need to read about their actual lives and see what it was like for them and possibly understand how it could have worked. Because it did work although you might think it couldn’t possibly.
And you must meet Will.
And you will want to know whether Will ever goes Outside and, if he does, how does that go?
And if you are like this reader, you will also find the information contained about the elevators at Thunder Bay very interesting.
I like Michael Christie’s style and his imagery. Here’s a favourite passage of mine:
“Since he’d been riding trains, the whispering had worsened, and his words were further jumbling in his head, as though someone had taken a sledgehammer to the card catalogues in the library of his mind.”
The subtitle is “What I learned on my road trip with Grandma” and that is exactly what the book is about: the book is even dedicated to Grandma. No surprises here. See Iain and his Grandma here where they discuss the book briefly.
The epigraph supports what Iain and his Grandma think about their experience of spending time together: “Time just gets away from us.” (Charles Portis, True Grit). We hear it often…I always meant to visit him but there was always something I had to do: there are as many versions of it as there are people. It might refer to a friend, a parent, a grandparent, a neighbour, a cousin etc. etc.
The road trip started out as one of those things that seemed like a good idea at the time. The author had been at a pub in Ottawa with his older brother and they were discussing Christmas gifts. They used to give gifts as a pair: sometimes home-made, twice they gave self-portraits for which they dressed up in costume. However, this year Iain’s brother had decided that “it was time to expand his gift basket into his own, private, improved basket.” He broke the news to Iain at the pub making sure he had already bought his gifts so he couldn’t be talked out of it.
Iain began to feel stress about gift buying for the first time: it was a “new, uninvited feeling.” “I’d never understood the requisite stress others felt when giving gifts. I’d always just waited until a day or two before, and inevitably the magic would happen.” His Grandma was the last grandparent left and the only elderly relative, the last of her generation. She had been part of his life much oftener when he was growing up but he hadn’t seen much of her in the last decade. “She was on the cusp of ninety-two. Ninety-two! Considering that cusp, she was in incredible shape, mentally and physically.”
His brother suggested that the most valuable thing he could give his grandmother would be time. “I know you’re working on your writing, but you can also take time off. Time that you could then spend with Grandma. No one else in the family can o that as easily.”
“Actually, you could take her on a trip.” And that’s how it all got started.
When Iain tells his brother that he’s not really worried about Grandma and her routine, we realizethat he is worried about his routine! His brother gives excellent advice and no sympathy: “Stop worrying for three seconds of your life. Get out of your own head.”
Iain is used to being alone all the time and he is worried about what he and his Grandma are actually going to do for five days in one another’s company. He knows that his grandmother never complains but his brother explains that this is a good match because Iain always complains.
The scene when he picks up his grandmother is very cinematic:
“I finally manoeuvre room for both of Grandma’s bags in front of the duvet and behind the cooler. I slam down the rusty trunk and walk around to her side of the car. “Ther you go,” I say, opening her door. “Don’t worry, it’s comfy. Well, comfier than it looks.”
She pats my arm “It looks cozy.”
The door, like the car, is tired. It sags and groans on its rusty hinges. Grandma smiles, lowering herself gradually, carefully. She steadies herself on my left arm all the way onto the low-riding seat.
That’s when I notice my front licence is hanging on by a single screww. Theleft screw is long lost. But, as Dad had pointed out earlier, I keep it in place with grey duct tape. The most recent strips of tape must have lost their hold. I usually have to re-tape every two weeks or so. I ask Grandma to hand me the roll that I keep on the handbrake.
As I straighten and fasten the dented licence plate, my delicately positive mood disintegrates. With Grandma watching, this act makes me feel more foolish and unsophisticated than it usually does. And realizing this, that I don’t usually feel any remorse or embarrassment over continually taping my front plate, fills me with a deep self-directed sourness.”
But our endeavor is official now. It’s no longer speculative. It’s real. It’s happening. Grandma’s sitting in my car. Even while I drove to her house, part of me still didn’t believe our trip would actually happen.”
It is at this point that Iain realizes the following:
“The most difficult thing for me might be having constant company for five days, the responsibility to make conversation with another person, to make meals for another person, an older person. I suppose I can cope. I’m hoping she can.”
How this turns out for Iain and his grandmother is what we learn in the remainder of the book. Here’s a bit of Grandma’s conversation with Iain just to whet your appetite further:
“I think feeling lucky is really only important, really only helpful, in the present. It seems tempting to wait for perspective, perspective gained by time. But it becomes irrelevant in the past. Luck doesn’t really mean the same thing if it’s only understood through memory, is what I’m trying to say.”
When Grandma and Iain discover they both like books and they both like Iain’s record album collection, things start to liven up.
I personally found Grandma’s own story slightly more interesting than Iain’s story but then she does have the advantage of 64 years more experience!
I’m thinking I will try Iain Reid’s first book soon. It’s called One Bird’s Choice and I’ve got a hold on it at the library. How about you? What’s next on your TBR list?
P.S. check out this latest news re Iain Reid’s writing.