I’ve always been a dog person. I love ’em; walking them, cuddling them, reblogging cute pictures of them, and so of course I love reading about them, or I would. You might’ve noticed when your grade school teacher made you read Old Yeller or Where the Red Fern Grows; books about dogs tend to kill off their main protagonist before the end. Heck, A Dog’s Purpose, the recent movie that was of course based on a book, features the same dog soul dying several times. It gets reincarnated of course, but we’re still left reading a book that kills multiple lovely doggies that we are made to fall in love with. MULTIPLE DOGGOS PEOPLE. I will not stand for it.
Sometimes though, I just need a good book about a dog. Books from the point of view of dogs are some of my favorites, because nonhuman narrators are always interesting when they are done well, and inside a dog’s mind is usually a fun place to be. That’s one of the reasons why I read The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. Someone recommended it to me a while ago and I finally got around to deciding I’d read it. The plot summary said the book was about a dog learning a lot from his human’s difficult life as a race car driver. Well, no reincarnations mentioned there, and they didn’t make it sound like the human had a great time, but hey. I’m worried about dogs having a bad time in my books, not people. Every other book I read is horrible stuff happening to people. It doesn’t phase me. Dogs though, dogs I care about.
Of course, The Art of Racing in the Rain opens on the main dog character talking about how he’s old, can’t walk, and knows he’s gonna die soon. The story technically encompasses the dog’s whole life with his human family, and that beginning point is just a starting point for that whole flashback to start, but c’mon! I should’ve known better than trust a dog book, I know. This one just straight up sucker punches me in the gut the minute I open it. Bam! Dog is dying right up in your face! I suppose you could view it as a warning that the story will end with a dead dog too, and I suppose in that way it’s just trying to tell me to get ready, but you know what else is an option? Not killing the dog at all!
We all know we’re going to die. Literature loves to remind us of that fact too, of course, but not every human protagonist’s story is defined by their eventual death. Why do so many classic and modern dog book hits involve the dog’s eventual death?
Drawing on my own experience, I know that when my first childhood dog died, it was emotionally devastating for me. It was the first time I came to truly understand that all my loved ones, including the humans, are mortal and will die. Those half a dozen or so pet fish I killed did not have the same impact at all. I’m sure lots of people could say they had a similar experience, lots of writers, perhaps. I suppose I get the urge to want to write about that feeling, that first understanding, that microcosm of mortality. I understand, but that doesn’t make these books hurt any less.
Dogs just generally seem pretty good at getting to the meaning of life, living simply and for the most important, joyful parts. More books could be written about the lives of these zen masters. I never enjoy the part where they get to dying, but in the end that’s just a part of life, and you still have to do it and do it well. Maybe it is only fair dogs show us how to do this too.