Love dogs? Ever wonder what yours is thinking? Save A Spaniel by local author and Pulitzer Prize winner Cathy Mitchell goes a long way toward hypothesizing what goes in the minds of our canine companions.
The self-published novel is the tale of how one dog, taken to the pound by a family that was no longer willing to care for it, eventually found a loving home and made an important difference in the life of its foster family. It’s a feel-good story that we’ve heard before, only Mitchell takes it further and delivers the narrative from the dog’s perspective.
Boykin Spaniel Star is a pretty dog — everyone seems to agree on the fact. “You said she was pretty, but I didn’t expect a dog this gorgeous,” says one character. “Look at those long gorgeous ears. Miss Star, you look just like Veronica Lake.” What people can’t seem to agree on is what sort of home Star needs. The Boykin’s first owners hope that she will be a good hunter, but when Star turns out to be gun shy, they abandon her at the pound.
There, Star is found to have heartworm, which should have been a death sentence. But thanks to her breeding, Star is taken in by a volunteer from Save A Spaniel. That particular dog rescue agency is fictional, but there are others like it: Oldies But Goodies Cocker Spaniel Rescue, Greyhound Rescue, Basset Hound Rescue, Border Collie Rescue… just think of a breed and type it into an internet search engine — there’s bound to be an agency determined to rescue its numbers from shelter death.
Star, rescued and nursed back to health, is placed first with a retiree couple, but it’s not a happy match. Star has too much energy and she’s a submissive wetter. “He doesn’t understand. Despite what thay all say, I am housebroken,” Star insists. “But I get upset when leaders shout at me. I’m not peeing. I’m crying.”
“Leaders” are Star’s human companions. She also names them according to what the do or how they smell: “Sweet Hands,” “Roarer,” “Cookie,” “Friend.”
The next family where the Boykin is sent should be perfect: They live on a South Carolina island with lots of land for Star to roam. They also have a young son intended as a playmate, but that’s where things go wrong. Timmy, who Star names “EEK!” for his incessant screaming, is rough with the dog. When Star attempts to defend herself, she’s labeled a biter and a bad dog and sent packing.
Luckily, there’s a happy home in this story and, once given some training and shown some patience, Star can really shine as a companion and as a personality. “I’m not a leader in a fur coat. I’m my own self,” she tells readers. “I’m a dog. I have all sorts of skills that leaders lack. They wander through the world completely unaware of most of the things that go on around them. …Leaders navigate this world, handicapped, and they’re hard to communicate with.”
Mitchell’s novel is warm and engaging. Its best moments are those that depict Star’s relationship with her leader “Friend.” The dog’s take on things that humans do can be hilarious (“Leaders like to sit out there and look at the mountains. They say funny things like, ‘My isn’t it clear today.’”) and the moments when her animal mind takes over her sense of logic make for great comedy: “Go to Friend? Have a ramble? Go to Friend? Ramble? A chance to run free! I love Friend. I never disobey her, but a chance to run free. I look her straight in the eye, lift my chin up in the air and take off running.”
Any dog owner will see something of their own pooch in Mitchell’s heroine, and — especially for those who don’t yet own a dog — Spaniel is a great introduction to both the heartbreaks and joys of fostering a pet.
—Alli Marshall, A&E reporter