Dogs, they say, are man’s best friend, and when what a child needs more than anything in the world is unconditional love, there is nothing better than a loyal dog. This is one of the themes explored in Margarita Engle’s novel-in-verse, Mountain Dog.
Tony is an eleven-year-old drifting in the world. His mother has been sent to prison for running illegal dog fighting, and Tony has been sent to live with a great uncle he never knew in the Sierra Nevada. Timid and gun-shy, Tony has a hard time getting comfortable, knowing that, as a foster child, his life can change in an instant. Enter Gabe, Tio Leo’s (Tony’s uncle) chocolate lab search and rescue dog. Gabe is exuberant, loving and dedicated to Tony’s happiness. Through his friendship with Gabe, and Leo’s kindness and patience, Tony slowly starts to find his confidence and starts to dream of a happy future.
Inspired by true stories and her own rescue dogs, author Engle weaves a delicate story told in the alternating points of view of Tony and Gabe. Tony’s narration is full of his worries and insecurities and his burgeoning hopes, while Gabe’s is focused on a dog’s unending love, for Leo and for this new boy that has come to live with them. “I love the smell of his/ hands. The finger scent rhymes with good smells, food/ smells, friendly smells.” Much of Gabe’s narration is about his sense of smell, something that is vitally important to a rescue dog. Tony’s narration is less assured. “I was also in charge of the money,/ the numbers, the bets./ That’s why I still think of math/ as a battle.”
Engle’s poetry is loaded with emotion. Tony seems to choose his words very carefully. “I catch a glimpse/ of a deer, and there are cries/ from owls/ and coyotes,/ and smaller noises, too.” Gabe, on the other hand, has the fast train of thought that, in reading to myself, came out quickly. “I search for the sad-scented old man./ I find him./ I win!” Engle uses the natural environment as coded language for Tony’s state of mind. The forest can be scary if you are lost, as Tony is in the beginning of the story. But the more Tony learns about survival and the woods outside his door, the more he starts to find peace with his absent mother and his uncertain future. “Gazing around, I imagine/ how lonely it would feel/ to stray from trail/ and get lost way out here” turns into “That’s what I’d be, part Trail Angel/ and part mysterious/ ferociously dedicated,/ educated, scientific,/ magical…”
Among other themes in the book, Engle explores what it means to be unclear of your background. Tony often refers to his mother and his uncle’s flight from Cuba (which is never named) on a raft, but Tony is very vague about specifics. When Hispanic Heritage Month rolls around at school, Tony is embarrassed to not be able to speak about his own heritage, or even to speak Spanish with his classmates. “I won’t do it./ I don’t belong./ Not here./ Or anywhere./ I can’t belong./ Ever.” But with his growing relationship with Tio Leo, Tony feels comfortable enough to ask about his history, and how his family first came to the United States. This uncertainty about one’s own identity is something with which many children struggle, and I believe this book, packaged as an inspiring animal story (which it also is), could reach out to kids of all ages.
Illustrations by Olga and Aleksey Ivanov pepper the tale with line drawings of Tony’s world, including the local flora and fauna, and of course Gabe the dog.
I have read many of Margarita Engle’s wonderful books, including The Firefly Letters, The Silver People and The Wild Book, but I feel as if Mountain Dog might be Engle’s most personal book. Backmatter includes an author’s note wherein Engle explains gleaning inspiration from her and her husband’s own rescue dogs, her own experience pretending to be a victim, her current life in California and her own family history. Mountain Dog might not reach the literary heights of something like The Surrender Tree, but it is packed with honesty and empathy, which makes it a very enjoyable and rewarding read.
One of the things I found most enjoyable about Mountain Dog was the narration from Gabe. I felt as if Engle really got into the mind of a dog. I particularly love how she repeatedly noted that smells “rhymed” with things, as a way of explaining Gabe’s talent for scents. For chapter ten, in a poem called “Togetherness,” Gabe the dog says,
“I don’t understand sadness,
but I can smell the way it makes
the boy feel unnaturally heavy,
so that his breath doesn’t seem
to be made
It’s an odor that rhymes
with the weight of aloneness,
so I press my head against the palm
of his hand, hoping to help him feel
the floating lightness
Getting inside the mind of an animal, or even one’s own pets, would be an interesting poetry exercise. Gathering inspiration from this selection, children could write about the relationship between human and animal from the animal’s point of view: What do they feel? What do they sense? What do they want?
Engle, Margarita. Mountain Dog. Illustrated by Olga & Aleksey Ivanov. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2013. ISBN:9781250044242