Friday, January 27, 2012

Dogland by Will Shetterly

DoglandDogland by Will Shetterly

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wasn't sure what to think about this book. It's another that is a bit outside my usual fare, and there were times in the early going that I wasn't even sure about finishing it. I'm glad I did. It was a fascinating read, with very subtle undercurrents that take time to sink in.

The story is about the Nix family who move to to rural Florida in the late 1950's. Luke Nix has a dream to open Dogland, a sort of canine zoo and tourist attraction, with a diner and gift shop. The story is told through the eyes of four-year-old Christopher, who tells the story from a perspective of hindsight. The family also includes mother Susan, three-year-old sister, Little Bit, and two-year-old brother, Digger. The family moves into a run-down property and begins to renovate it and bring in the many dogs who will be the focus of Dogland. They are befriended by their Seminole neighbor, a woman who owns the Fountain of Youth Inn (and may or may not really own the actual Fountain of Youth), and Ethorne Hawkins, a black man, hired to help out and later as cook in the restaurant. Luke also hires the rest of Ethorne's family to work Dogland and the diner. As racial tensions rise and Luke begins to write to the editorial section of the newspaper in support of desegregation and the banning of prayer in schools, he begins to attract the attention of others in the community, not the least of which is the Ku Klux Klan. In the pivotal confrontation, young Chris literally lets the dogs out.

The shining stars of this story are the characters. All are well drawn and belivable, with nuance and shading that make them truly dimensional. Shetterly captures the tone and layers of rural Florida nicely. There are hints of the magical and mystical in the story, although they are very subtle and may not be obvious to some readers. Readers of Neil Gaiman's American Gods may well recognize a few of these.

The story stays firmly centered on the Nix family, through Chris' eyes, and although race and religion play a large part in the plot, there is no preaching here. Events are confined to the local populace and individual struggles with a changing society.

The book is well written, the prose flows like a lazy Florida stream on a summer day. It is poignant, realistic, and strong. Chris' voice is often as carefree as his age should be, and at other times he seems far wiser than his years, although that probably comes from the fact that he is telling the story as an older man remembering what his younger self lived.

This is a book that will stick with you and make you think. I recommend it.

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