Book Review: Putting on the Dog
Putting on the Dog: Canine Characterization in Fiction and Nonfiction
Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. Atheneum, 2000, 144 pp., $7.99 (paper).
My Dog Tulip by J. R. Ackerley. NYRB Classics, 1999, 208 pp., $14 (paper).
Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis. Coach House Books, 2015, 176 pp., $17.95 (paper).
Animals Strike Curious Poses by Elena Passarello. Sarabande, 2017, 200 pp., $19.95 (hardcover).
I’m writing a collaborative novel in which dogs become hyperintelligent and reset the existing mammalian pecking order, good-naturedly overtaking and enslaving humans. I know dogs but haven’t lived with one since I was young, so it seemed important to review the literature. I wanted the dog characters I created to be vivid and accurate in their dogginess. Because the dogs in my novel are filled with determination and pluck, bursting with ideas about how to reshape the world to suit them, I wanted to read books with similarly self-possessed canines at their center.
What I found was that books with dogs as main characters are, in fact, not necessarily books about dogs, but books about humans’ relationship to dogs. Sometimes, dog characters are used as lenses to bring new clarity to the human characters; other times, the dogs are objects for humans to fight over; yet other times, dogs function primarily as symbols—of loyalty, of humbleness, of steadfastness, of violence. Dogs can also serve as lower-stakes stand-ins for people. You want a really dramatic moment in your book, one that will show that you mean business but not take away any of the important characters? Kill the dog. You want to demonstrate just how irredeemably evil a character is? Have him kill the dog.
Mostly, dog stories are about a human looking at a dog, rather than a shared gaze or a dog looking back at a human. A dog’s relationship to the world is profoundly different from a person’s, starting with their lower vantage point and continuing through their sensory capabilities, lack of opposable thumbs, strong sense of power structures, and relatively low intelligence. Dogs live with us and seem to enjoy doing so, but it’s hard to know exactly what their embodied experience feels like. I read for answers.
I was nervous to undertake this project because I’m tender-hearted toward animals, and if there’s one thing I know about dog books, it’s that you can never count on a dog to live. There’s a whole subgenre of educational dying-dog novels for children, which strikes me as a great cruelty. I can’t remember characters or situations in novels I read just last year, but Where the Red Fern Grows, the story of a little boy and of his two beloved redbone coonhounds that come to grief at the claws of a mountain lion (Dan the coonhound gets the worst of it; the boy’s mother carefully washes his exposed intestines with soapy water and uses a sewing needle to stitch up his abdomen, though of course sepsis takes him shortly afterward and Ann the coonhound dies of grief on his grave) will follow me as long as I have a memory. More dead dogs: Old Yeller, Sounder, Marly, Cujo, the Hound of the Baskervilles.
To save you, dear readers, from a similar unpleasant experience, I have offered a helpful note at the end of each section about whether or not the dog dies and, if it does, how that makes me feel. The books reviewed here, two works of fiction and two of nonfiction, push past the dead dog as heart-tugging plot element, offering nuanced explorations of the human-canine bond.
Shiloh, published in 1991, was children’s author Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s sixty-fifth book and her most acclaimed. It won the Newberry Medal from the American Library Association, and it’s easy to see why, for the wonderfully rich storytelling voice, rendered in dialect, of the young protagonist, Marty. The novel is set in poor, rural West Virginia, and the lives of the people it depicts are not easy. Marty and his family worry about having enough to eat. They are good, hard-working people, but the economic devastation of the place touches them, too. When Marty finds a scared young beagle in the woods, a “shorthaired dog—white with brown and black spots—not making any kind of noise, just slinking along with his head down, watching me, tail between his legs like he’s hardly got the right to breathe,” he falls in love and wants to keep him. There are problems, though: the dog’s abusive owner Judd is a unreasonable ogre who won’t give him up, plus there’s no money to buy Shiloh from Judd, and even if there were, Marty’s family couldn’t afford to feed the dog.
Shiloh is a novel with a dog’s name as its title. One would assume, then, that the dog figures prominently in the plot. And he does. But the characterization of the dog is not particularly vivid. The most interesting thing about Shiloh is his name, which is the name of the place where Marty found him. As I read, I found myself forgetting Shiloh’s breed and flipping back to the cover, which shows a cowering dog with eyes averted and ears flagging, more reminiscent of a basset hound than a beagle in his general sagginess.
In this novel, Shiloh is not a subject possessing volition, but an object, something fought for and passed between Marty and Judd. At one point, Marty hides Shiloh from Judd for several weeks by building a fenced enclosure with old chicken wire. He visits irregularly with food, and Shiloh is always both grateful and quiet during his long absences. Marty worries that Shiloh will dig to escape or bark to reveal himself, but Shiloh does neither. He’s so perfectly obedient that he’s practically inert.
The narrative possibilities for the little boy and his family are similarly hampered by their extreme goodness. Judd Travers is a wonderful antagonist, big, brash, and shouty, (in the past, he might have even shot a dog!), but he spends most of the novel off the page. Instead the novel is dominated by Marty’s internal struggle, which finds him lying to everyone he loves in order to protect Shiloh. Marty does one brave and reckless act when he steals Shiloh but then sinks into a pit of self-questioning, which helps to drive home the edifying lessons of this book for young people—lying to your family comes at a cost, sometimes you must set aside your own desires for the good of the group, don’t steal even if your intentions are good—but also renders the plot relatively static for a while. Things finally heat up at the end, when Marty and Judd are locked in a battle of wills and the only way Marty is able to triumph and save Shiloh is through some light blackmail.
Marty the kid identifies strongly with Shiloh the dog, sensing in him a similar lack of agency. He tells his father, “‘I figure a dog’s the same as a kid. You don’t treat a kid right, he’ll run off first chance he gets, too.’” At one point, after Marty pleads with his father to contact the police about Judd, his dad demurs: “Tyler County hasn’t hardly got the money to investigate reports of children being kicked, Dad says, much less dogs.” It makes sense, then, that Shiloh doesn’t get a more thorough characterization. This is a story for young readers about the terrible cycle of child abuse (Judd, we learn, was abused, too), with a dog at its heart because that is the only subject position less powerful than a child’s.
When trouble does come, it is because mild-mannered Shiloh is attacked in his cage by a roaming German shepherd, which easily rips through the shaky chicken wire. Though I understand how and why the book works, I also can’t help but feel as though it would be improved if Shiloh had some of the same gumption as that shepherd. Shiloh is so abject that, sadly, it is hard for me to root for him.
Spoiler alert: Though it’s touch-and-go for a while after the German shepherd attack, Shiloh receives good veterinary care and lives to appear in three sequels. The pressing issue of how the family will afford Shiloh’s food and care is never quite addressed, though it would be spoilsport-y of me indeed to point this out, considering the rush of good feeling at the end of the book.
If you want to see a truly glorious dog-as-character, look no further than My Dog Tulip (1956), a work of nonfiction by the writer and editor J. R. Ackerley. He describes his dog Tulip, a German shepherd (or Alsatian, in the text), with an almost romantic regard, crafting a sort of blazon to Tulip, itemizing her “pretty” (his go-to adjective where she is concerned) attributes:
These dark markings symmetrically divide up her face into zones of pale pastel colors, like a mosaic, or a stained-glass window; her skull, bisected by [a thread of black fur], is two primrose pools, the center of her face light gray, the bridge of her nose above the long, black lips fawn, her cheeks white, and upon each a patte de mouche has been tastefully set. A delicate white ruff, frilling out from the lobes of her ears, frames this strange, clownish face, with its heavily leaded features, and covers the whole of her throat and chest with a snowy shirt front.
This sizeable paragraph is the shortest of three in a row rhapsodizing on Tulip’s physical charms. We readers can glean the following information: Yes, Tulip is objectively beautiful. The dog is especially beautiful to Ackerley, which allows him to describe her in lovely, imagery-rich prose. And he has gazed on Tulip long and minutely.
Ackerley’s attention to Tulip is of a different quality than that of Marty’s to Shiloh. Marty can’t quite find the language to describe his overwhelming love for Shiloh; Ackerley, on the other hand, draws Tulip exquisitely clearly through a technique of ultra-personification. He is not writing about a possession or an inferior being, but an exalted one, with a capacity for highly nuanced thought. In the first section, “The Two Tulips,” Ackerley goes through a series of vets who treat Tulip aggressively or unfeelingly before he finds Miss Canvey, a vet who also delves into dog psychology, whom Ackerley regards “with the veneration with which we behold a saint.” Miss Canvey’s diagnosis of Tulip’s bad behavior toward everyone but Ackerley is as follows: “‘Well, she’s in love with you, that’s obvious. And so life’s full of worries for her. She has to protect you. . . . It’s you she’s thinking of.’” Readers are suspended in a marvelous limbo where we are not sure if Ackerley the fond lover is exaggerating the charms of the beloved or if we’re getting the straight scoop and Tulip truly is extraordinary.
Ackerley is certainly buying what Miss Canvey is selling, and he devotes himself to the task of providing Tulip a full life. Both Shiloh and My Dog Tulip are about what humans can learn from dogs, but while Shiloh’s lessons have to do with working hard to get what you want (the dog), My Dog Tulip’s are about self-sacrifice to benefit the dog. Ackerley asks not what dogs can do for us—in terms of emotional support, unconditional love, lessons about grieving and loss, entertainment—but what we can do for dogs.
The very structure of the book is Tulip-centric. Six relatively free-standing sections (“The Two Tulips” “Liquids and Solids,” “Trial and Error,” “Journey’s End,” “Fruits of Labor,” and “The Turn of the Screw”), each speak to a particular Tulip-topic. “Liquids and Solids,” for example, is about her urine and feces. Ackerley divides Tulip’s urination into two categories, necessary and social. During the latter, Tulip’s face is “business-like, as though she were signing a check.” The four latter sections detail Tulip’s sexual and reproductive life, which Ackerley treats just as seriously as her excrement. Tulip, he believes, should have the full complement of life experiences. He wants Tulip to copulate and reproduce, not to sell her puppies for profit but so she doesn’t miss out on a portion of the experience of doghood.
The other people in the book, too, all come to Ackerley through their relationship to Tulip—vets, owners of possible “husbands” for her, a cousin with a country house where Tulip can stay. We never see Ackerley’s social life, though he was part of a vibrant (male, gay) literary circle that included E. M. Forster, Christopher Isherwood, Stephen Spender, and W. H. Auden. We also never meet Tulip’s previous owner, Freddie Doyle, a ne’er-do-well sailor and lover of Ackerley’s who gave Ackerley Tulip when he was sent to prison for thieving. Tulip’s origin story is both a curious omission and a logical one, for Ackerley is telling us a great romance, which has no room for a love triangle.
Spoiler alert: Tulip dies, but it’s only after a long, full life of love given and received. It arrives in the book’s appendix, as a sort of afterthought, and barely stings.
Fifteen Dogs, the Canadian writer André Alexis’s ninth book, begins with a deus ex machina: Hermes and Apollo are hanging out in a bar (as gods can do in the world of this novel) when they commence arguing about whether dogs would be happier or more miserable than humans if they had human capacity for thought. Apollo wagers on unhappiness, while Hermes says he’s willing to take the bet, so long as they determine relative happiness at the moment just before death and so long as only one dog must be happy for him to win. They agree to these terms and bewitch a vet’s kennel filled with fifteen dogs, who soon free themselves and embark on an adventure.
Fifteen Dogs is told in a rambling omniscient point of view that dips into the minds of dogs, gods, and men alike, and the dog sections are especially satisfying, because they offer a convincing and vivid depiction of how the mind of a dog might process the world. The narrator shows the primacy not of sight, as is true for human characters, but smell. Thus, when the pack goes to a lake where they will make their home, their first impressions of it are not about the shapes of trees or the glints of light on the water, but of odors:
There was, first, the lake itself: sour, vegetal, fishy. Then there was the smell of geese, ducks, and other birds. More enticing still, there was the smell of bird shit, which was like a kind of hard salad sautéed in goose fat. Finally, there were more evanescent whiffs: cooked pork, tomatoes, grease from cow’s meat, corn, bread, sweetness, and milk.
Human readers get what we need from the description: We can picture a lake, the waterfowl floating on it, the humans beside it grilling up hamburgers, maybe, and then, as well, we are put into the consciousness of dogs, whose first and best sense is smell.
Alexis offers a “Dramatis Canes” at the beginning of the book, with all fifteen dogs identified by name, breed, and occasionally distinguishing traits, which is especially useful in the early pages, before the pack is winnowed by humans, accidents, and treachery within its ranks. The circumstances of the gods’ bet almost guarantee that the book will contain dog death, and, indeed, within the first few pages, we learn of the unhappy deaths of the elderly Labradoodle Agatha, the mutt Ronaldinho, “who deplores the condescension of humans,” and the nervous Whippet-Weinmaraner Lydia.
The pathos of so many tender furry precious souls getting ripped from their bodies, often with great violence, is offset by the human-like character position of the dogs. The dogs, due to their intelligence, behave much as humans would in a novel, fighting for what they want by brute strength or cunning or some mix of the two. They are co-conspirators in their fate, so, when it arrives and it is unpleasant, readers are not confronted with the deaths as injustices dealt to innocents. Instead Fifteen Dogs feels at times much more like a novel of political intrigue, as when, for example, the physically weak but wily beagle Benjy lures the pack leader and other stronger dogs to eat poisoned meat.
Readers also know that the plot is necessarily a manipulated one, that the gods are watching and may step in to rearrange the actors in more pleasing configurations whenever they like, as when Hermes appears to the poet-dog Prince to warn him that the pack leader, Atticus, intends to kill him. Prince flees, and his story is not picked up again until near the end of the novel.
Yes, there is a poet-dog, and his facility with language is what invokes Atticus’s ire. Interestingly, the bone of contention (my apologies) is language. Early in the action, just as the dogs are honing their language skills, Prince presents the pack with a poem, one of many embedded in the text, and the dogs have very different reactions. Some, like Atticus and his ilk, think Prince’s “play with language [is] a constant affront to clarity” and that, even more strongly, it is “as if Prince were intent on destroying their spirit.” These dogs are intent on protecting a heritage that seems at risk of being lost due to their new intelligence, which is brought into focus by Prince’s language innovations. Atticus warns, “No one can silence the words inside, but you can ignore them. We can go back to the old way of being. This new thinking leads away from the pack, but a dog is no dog if he does not belong.” Other dogs in the group, “far from feeling that Prince had abused their tongue [think] he’d brought something unexpected and wonderful to it.”
Fifteen Dogs is subtitled “An Apologue,” which situates it in a tradition with Aesop’s fables and Orwell’s Animal Farm. Apologues are usually short tales that use animal characters to convey lessons about human behavior, and the subtitle invites readers to question what the moral teachings might be here. We are all at the mercy of the gods, maybe, or at least of forces beyond our control. That much can be established. But, beyond that, there is the suggestion that art has an indelible, mystical quality of endurance and meaning-giving. For the poet-dog Prince, as he lies dying, knows “somewhere, within some other being, his beautiful language existed as a possibility, perhaps as a seed. It would flower again. He was certain of it and the certainty was wonderful.”
Spoiler alert: The dogs die, every last one. I only cried when the last one died, but they were good tears, a reaction to the marvelous unfolding beauty of the story Alexis tells.
The last title I’ll consider here, Elena Pasarello’s second essay collection, Animals Strike Curious Poses, strays a bit from the subject of dogs in particular to all sorts of animals that have gotten close enough to humans that we’ve named them: Koko the gorilla, Osama the crocodile, Jeoffrey the cat, Arabella the spider, Harriet the tortoise, Ganda the rhino.
The book is a beautiful object, modeled on a medieval bestiary. Each essay has a richly ornamented introductory page which presents the essay’s title (frequently an animal name), the animal’s genus and species, a silhouette of the animal peeking onto the page, and a year (the essays are arranged chronologically and the dates span about 40,000 years, from a wooly mammoth to Cecil the lion, who was shot by a dentist from Minnesota who paid $50,000 for the privilege in 2015).
Pasarello has an affinity for turning pop-song lines into book titles, as with her first book, Let Me Clear My Throat. This title, which recalls one of Prince’s odder lyrics, helps prepare readers for the contents. Note that she didn’t call the collection “When Doves Cry,” the title of the song in which the lyric appears. “When Doves Cry” would be too interested in animal personification, too easy on one hand and too inaccurate a description of the book’s project on the other. What makes the poses of the animals in Pasarello’s collection “curious,” then? I would suggest it is how uncanny these animal lives are—both deeply foreign to human experience and also bone-familiar.
In an essay about Ganda the rhinoceros, subject of a famous and anatomically inaccurate woodcut by Albrecht Dürer, Pasarello tackles head-on my fundamental questions about rendering animal consciousness on the page. She writes of the “barrier that a natural animal body presents to human understanding,” one that is even evident in a later, more lifelike portrait of a rhino by the painter Jean-Baptiste Oudry. Moreover, she suggests, even if we could touch the rhino, “the space between the flesh of our palms and the other side of her dark body would be vast and absolute.”
The mystery and unknowability of her animal subjects pushes Pasarello into innovative essay forms. The essay about Sackerson, the baited bear whom Macbeth compared himself to during a particularly self-pitying moment, is written in early modern English, rich in iambs. At the end of the piece, the crowd watching Sackerson’s torture speaks as one: “Yes. I am jealous of his natural acts. And so I’ll hit his nature with a stick.” In Pasarello’s imagining of them, they hurt the bear because they cannot be him, with his animal instincts and concern only for the present. An essay about Jeoffrey the cat, subject of a famous poem by the eighteenth-century poet and mental asylum resident Christopher Smart, attempts to recreate the poem’s left-hand lines, which are believed to have been lost. The lines Passarello creates meld to the existing ones, sometimes complicating and sometimes clarifying the existing text.
There is a dog here, or a wolf, or a wolf-dog: the Wolf of Gubbio, who terrorized thirteenth-century Umbrian villagers until St. Francis of Assisi arrived to save them. Passarello presents the wolf’s story in the style of a parable. Francis is able to befriend the wolf by boldly going out to him, past the safety of the village gates, and declaring “‘Brother! I know your hunger.’” The wolf transforms in that moment, “heeling by the man’s side” and allowing Francis to hold his paw. They return to the village as friends. By showing the wolf empathy, Francis makes him a dog. The lesson of the parable is about the complicated nature of humanity. We humans, the narrative voice instructs us, will always struggle between good and evil, the “beasts of [our] hunger and the saints of [our] righteousness will never leave [our] bod[ies] to walk the highway together,” as the wolf and Francis do.
The most emotionally affecting essay for me was “Lancelot,” which paired an examination of John Berger’s essay “Why Look at Animals” with a personal story about a trip to the circus, where Passarello encountered a magical beast, a unicorn named Lancelot, a poster of whom she treasured for years afterward. Passarello outlines Berger’s argument that humans have suffered a fundamental injury in our loss of closeness to the animal world. We have shrunken animals down, fenced them off, mediated them, turned them into cartoon versions of themselves to sell things, and lost a way of knowing ourselves in the process. This idea is reflected in the form of Lancelot, with his white mane, “gleaming and very possibly permed,” and glittery pink horn. When Passarello first sees him at the circus, in all his glowing artifice, “the emotion . . . wasn’t about his realness; it was about sitting (relatively) near something that represented offsite magic.” Only much later does she discover the nauseating truth: Lancelot is a goat who underwent surgery to cut away one horn and move the other to his forehead. For her, a child of the ’80s, far removed from a Berger-ian encounter eye-to-eye with a lion, this is all the nature she gets: “my relationship with animals best resembles this cream-rinsed, mutant goat with a watery-eye—this survivor of backwoods surgery with a pastel-bedazzled wang sprouting from his brain.” This essay collection, maybe, is a way of stepping closer to the animal.
In other essays, Pasarello extends her imaginative empathy to animals, giving voice to a tortoise, Harriet, who is captured by Darwin and then pines for him for years afterward, and Koko the gorilla, who has her own voice already, through the more than a thousand words of sign language in her vocabulary. Pasarello ventriloquizes for Koko using Koko’s limited language, and what Koko has to say is surprising: She has no message for humanity from the Realm of the Animals. Instead, she tells a filthy joke. Animals: they’re just like us.
Spoiler alert: Of the seventeen animal subjects in Animals Strike Curious Poses, I can say with certainty that only one, Koko, is still alive. It is hard to mourn a wooly mammoth who expired 40,000 years ago, but more recent losses, like Arabella the spider, who learned to spin webs gravity-free on SkyLab III and nearly survived reentry, or Harriet the tortoise, who knew Darwin and just died in 2006, sting more.
Of all of the books I’ve read on dogs, fiction and non-, Passarello’s has been most helpful because it is also most equivocal. That’s what I leave with. There’s no best way to bring an animal to life on the page. However an author goes about it, a “vast and absolute” chasm remains. That doesn’t mean, though, that it isn’t a project worth undertaking.
Part two of my dog research plan is a campaign to befriend Nutmeg, the tawny-coated barker next door. I’m making progress, but she’s proving tougher to crack than the titles above. Recently, I saw over the fence that the entire time she barked at me, she wagged her tail, too. Her words, which had always before sounded to me like “I hate you” or “I will bite you” were instead more like “I see you there, and here I am, too.” I wait for her to jump the fence again and dash into our yard, so I can look her in the eye, hold out my hand, and greet her like a person.
This issue—particularly its fiction—is replete with instances of darkness and turmoil in personal lives, and I wonder if this might be because fiction so frequently holds a mirror to the world in which it is created: writers are already metabolizing the historical moment. I’ve been thinking a lot lately, too, of past turbulences. It might be useful now to look at the previous century, if only to try to avoid repeating some of the same mistakes. The 1900s opened with a set of presumptions that didn’t work out. What many assumed was going to be a century of extended peace turned into an almost gothic time of warfare, economic disruption, and darkness: first an unexpected world war, followed a decade afterward by a worldwide depression, and then an even larger world war that stamped and defined the century as the bloodiest in history. Before the century was even finished, a cold war followed, with its several attendant wars and conflicts that comprised not just Korea and Vietnam but also the Chinese Civil War, along with about ten others.
The Axis powers of Germany, Japan, and Italy were nations that could each boast a rich cultural and intellectual history. So how were they taken over, in the 1930s, by heads of state who got sixty million people killed (adding to the twenty million of World War I)? Of course, history is full of brinkmanship and warfare. We repeatedly demonstrate that we can outdo ourselves with destructiveness—and yes, the bombs and artillery did get shockingly more lethal; all of that is well known. I’m reading a biography of Adolph Hitler during his rise to power, an 1835-page book by Volker Ullrich, that offers some interesting clues to how this man—who wins the gold medal for Chief Lunatic of the Last Century—came to power in Germany.
The short answer is that most of Hitler’s ideas and goals were quite apparent. He became a rabble-rouser in his twenties, after barely getting by as an artist in Austria and then Munich. Before World War I, he strongly identified with the radical pan-Germanic nationalist movement, opposing internationalism and agreeing with many fellow Austrians’ fears that they were losing their jobs to immigrants, particularly from Eastern Europe. Ullrich believes that Hitler’s extreme anti-Semitism was less obvious during this early period, even though Vienna was full of anti-Semitic movements and opinions. Hitler did not invent hyper-nationalism, racism, anti-Semitism, and all the other hateful ideas that he later pushed so hard. He picked them up from threads in popular culture and refined the use of them, becoming increasingly skillful at molding his speeches to play upon the prejudices and fears of the middle and lower classes of Austria and Germany. After moving to Munich, he made his name as a beer-hall speechmaker, using a range of political positions from the far right to the left, depending on his audience. He eventually named his party the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, even though subsequent governmental appointees primarily came from the bases of banking, industry, and the military and had nothing to do with workers. His delusions of German cultural and national superiority played well to both the haves and the have-nots in a country that felt cheated by the Treaty of Versailles, spates of hyperinflation, and the worldwide Depression.
Hitler’s modus operandi was to kick out anyone who threatened him, firing them or dismissing their decisions, if they occupied a governmental role. One official whom Hitler overrode was a conscientious state auditor who determined in October 1934 that the Chancellor owed over 405,494 Reichsmarks in income taxes. Hitler quickly appointed someone to overrule this decision and paid no personal taxes then or later. He also continually escalated the brutality of his regime by killing groups of people through Nazi “street movement” rioting and murder. After the Nazis were fully in power, he continued to use orchestrated riots and began to openly use the SS to eliminate political enemies.
The Führer slipped into power by appealing to the frustrations of both ends of the class spectrum with promises that sounded desirable if not entirely credible, as well as by persistently currying favor with the elderly President von Hindenburg. He also employed new methods of transportation and communication, hopping around Germany by air and maintaining a grueling schedule of carefully orchestrated speeches to large crowds. President von Hindenburg appointed him as Chancellor in January 1933. Prior to that, his party had undergone several years of ups and downs in elections, never winning a majority of positions. When Hindenburg appointed him Chancellor, it was widely speculated in German newspapers that two of the more prominent members of his cabinet would mitigate Hitler’s extreme ideas and he would not last long in this position.
Once in power, Hitler stripped authority from established political offices and gave it to individuals of his choosing, operating in a continual “state-of-emergency” mode, which resulted in “unprecedented degrees of corruption, patronage and outright embezzlement” by the appointees, according to Ullrich. He promoted and mediated rivalries among his close officials. For example, infighting occurred between his finance minister, Hjalmar Schacht, who by 1934 feared that Hitler was going to bankrupt Germany with rearmament, and Hermann Goering, who figured Germany would do fine once it moved into war mode. Schacht tendered his resignation, which Hitler didn’t accept at first, keeping up the rivalry between the two; then, after the war started, he fired Schacht. Avoiding traditional governmental roles and institutions, denying or condemning anyone who resisted him, promoting rivalries, and keeping things in a state-of-emergency blur: in brief, his approach was to gain control and then maintain it no matter what it took.
By the time he launched the war and introduced the concentration camps, his scapegoating attacks had grown to target every sort of “undesirable” element—Jews, homosexuals, criminals, foreign soldiers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and many other groups. At the end of the war, 3.5 million German nationals were still in concentration camps and 11 million had been killed in them.
Personally, Hitler was capable of being charming and attentive, and even acting genuinely interested in the opinions of others. He gave birthday gifts to the wives of members of his close group, inquired about their families, and held regular gatherings in his mountain retreat, Berghof, in the Bavarian Alps. Ullrich devotes significant effort to describing daily life at Berghof, if only out of natural curiosity at how civilized and domestic Hitler could appear to be. Ullrich’s overall view of life in this domestic “retreat” is that despite its pleasant routines of dinners, nightly movies, Wagner, and conversations about art, it was in fact a place of continual work. Hitler never in his life separated work from play and quite often launched into hours-long monologues that occasionally ended with his falling asleep while he was talking. Insiders were both eminently aware of and cooperative with Hitler’s plans. Those plans were to retake lands Germany had lost in both east and west after the war, then to expand and dominate Europe and create a “thousand-year Reich” complete with vast stadiums, buildings, causeways, railroads—in short, a “new Rome.” Despite later denials by survivors from this group, they clearly knew Hitler’s plans, just as anyone in the public who was paying the slightest attention knew, certainly by mid-1938, that he intended to rid Germany and Austria of all Jews.
This issue of the Missouri Review foregrounds the turbulence of history, and of individual lives. The lifelong impact of war atrocities, even on those who are simply witnesses, not victims, is the subject of our Jeffrey E. Smith Prize-winning story: Jason Brown’s “Instructions to the Living from the Condition of the Dead” is partly set—at its heart—in the memory of seeing the remains of a concentration camp at the end of the Second World War. It concerns John, a very elderly New Englander, retired English teacher, veteran, and widower, and his new romance with his neighbor, Isabel, eighty-five, whom he has known since they were young. When he sneaks off to see Isabel, John ends up telling her about a horrific concentration-camp scene he witnessed at the close of World War II, an experience he has kept to himself for decades. Her response to this awful secret is an almost frightening denial, and it leads to a dramatic denouement. It is a richly toned story with a darkly comic thread despite its subject.
Rajeev Balasubramanyam’s “Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss” is another dark comedy—this one leading to a realization of the irrelevance of fame in a mortal, conditional, quickly changing world. The protagonist, Chandra, is a famous Cambridge economics professor who is once again—how could this be?—passed over for the Nobel Prize. In an absent-minded moment, his bad day suddenly becomes much worse, leading to a series of realizations that make clear to our glum professor that not getting the Nobel Prize might be the least of his troubles.
John J. Clayton’s story “Joy” is about a psychologist approached by a terminally ill patient to help her make sense of her life before she dies. In the process of counseling her, he begins to question the human tendency to live “a diminished life” to avoid risks, which has kept his patient, and himself, from experiencing joy. The turbulence, as well as the epiphany in this story, derives from weighing the quality of a life about to end. Edward Hamlin’s “A Small but Perfect Happiness” is a slyly gothic tale about a woman who is also being haunted by mortality. Sandra is a recent widow and mother of one son, Curt, who has moved to Italy with a beautiful and cultured Italian girlfriend. In the wake of her husband’s and mother’s deaths, Sandra is trying to establish a new normal, but frequent texts from her son interrupt her plans. Soon the texts, with accompanying photos, become more ominous, leading to a crisis that is both harrowing and weird.
C Pam Zhang’s “And How Much of These Hills Is Gold” is another tale with a gothic tone, this one set in the American West. Two young Chinese American characters are navigating a hostile mining-country landscape in the wake of their abusive prospector father’s death. It is a gritty and surprising story about survival and luck.
In Tyler Keevil’s Smith Prize-winning essay, a young man is employed in a small, privately owned factory cutting metal without safety goggles when a piece of “swarf” flies into his eye. The accident surprises neither him nor his boss, because the economy is rough and it seems symptomatic of a general malaise and sense of defeat: “We were like soldiers who simply didn’t bother to put on their helmets before heading into the fray. We expected things to go wrong. Things were going wrong. People were losing their jobs and companies—ours and others—were going bankrupt. Mortgages were being foreclosed. Banks were failing. . . . All going, or gone,” writes Keevil. The essay evokes a somber mood and tone, as a single event radiates outward to illustrate a larger, unsolvable situation.
Robert Wrigley’s memoir “Nemerov’s Door” concerns the author’s late father, a civilian Air Force employee and car salesman. The essay focuses on two points in their relationship—a meeting with Howard Nemerov when Wrigley was a very young poet, and his father’s death many years later. At the center is Wrigley’s meditation on and homage to Nemerov’s poem “The View from an Attic Window.” He contemplates the relationship of his craft to his father’s love of cars and planes and sees that what we are comes from both our lineage and our chosen vocation.
In Jacqueline Kolosov’s interview with Andre Dubus III, the author talks about growing up poor, as the son of a single mother divorced from his writer father. After holding back and being a passive observer to violence against his family, young Dubus decided to fight back, and his young adult years were riddled with violence, until he discovered his talent and interest in writing.
Karen Skolfield’s Smith Prize-winning poems use her service in the Army to explore issues of language and gender. Brutal and lyrical, they wrench open the devastating experience of war. Whether tracing the etymology of the grenade back to the “red pulp” of the pomegranate or exploding stereotypes of men and women alike, the poems upend traditional notions of war. Heather Treseler’s ferocious persona poems reimagine the mythological figures of Daphne, Persephone, and Demeter. A young woman is turned into a tree and endures “girlhood’s sweetly rotting body.” Another hears the thumps of souls raining down on the root-cellar underworld she shares with her husband. Treseler’s poems are somehow both contemporary and classical, seething with sublime threat. The images in Nancy Takacs’s poems ripple with tension, holding together both yearning and uneasiness, as blown-up, dead stars nevertheless hide the holy, and a sunrise “reels in its cup of flowers” from the speaker who only wants to keep that light. Both meditative and uneasy, Takacs’s work complicates ideas of the pastoral and devotional.
Paintings by the subject of our art feature, Emily Carr, are highly regarded in Canada for the way they capture the wilderness and spirituality of early twentieth-century British Columbia through sculptural landscapes and bold colors. In her visual feature, “London Times: The Boarding House Pictures of Emily Carr,” Kristine Somerville presents six rare pieces from Carr’s early work, depicting life in the boarding house where Carr stayed during her studies in London. With saturated colors and flattened perspectives, the images capture the small dramas of Victorian women abroad, prefacing the work that would later make Carr famous.
Winner of the 2016 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize for Essay
Hot swarf hit me in the eye, the pain insane, furious, awe-inspiring. The pain was so intense it seemed to take on shape, flare red: shards of fire illuminating my cornea. Inhuman pain.
This story is not currently available online.
You think you might begin this story with an admission: you really don’t know who you are, or who you were, or how you became the one after the other. Or others—it’s not as if you’ve only been two versions of yourself. And what does it mean to have become? How is becoming accomplished? Maybe it’s about time. From time to time, there are portals. You step through and become, or you don’t. How much control over these things do you really have? You wonder if the self is a matter of becoming at all, or if it’s just something that happens to you. How would you know the difference?
This essay is currently not available online.
Poetry Feature: Karen Skolfield
Winner of the 2016 Jeffrey E. Smith Editor’s Prize for Poetry
Featuring the poems:
- Grenade: Origin < OF. pomme-grenate
- The Throwing Gap
- Private, PV2, Private First Class
- Company B Graduation Booklet: PV2 Skolfield
These poems are not currently available online.
Poetry Feature: Nancy Takacs
Featuring the poem:
- Talking to God on County Road H
This poem is not currently available online.
Poetry Feature: Heather Treseler
Featuring the poems:
- Daphne on Being Wood
- Persephone’s Postcard
- Demeter: Calendar Girl
These poems are not currently available online.
Instructions to the Living from the Condition of the Dead
The door hinges creaked, and the thudding footfalls of his family shook the beams. What were they doing here today, the day before Thanksgiving? Voices, the crackling of grocery bags, firewood clunking in front of the hearth (because they thought he was too old now to carry it from the barn himself). They swarmed into every corner of the parlor and the kitchen with no thought to the most important question, the same this year as every year: Who had brought the goddamned cheddar? Indeed. Two years ago he’d put his foot down and said he would no longer provide! So this year would be the same as last year: crackers and hummus from California.
This story is not currently available online.
Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss
In the moments after the accident, Professor Chandra saw not his life flash before him but his ideology. First came his years at Hyderabad, his BA in Economics when he was a Marxist like everyone else; his PhD at Cambridge, when he realised India would have to liberalise if terminal underachievement were to be avoided; his first job at the LSE, where he became fond of saying that communism was simply the most arduous route to capitalism; his decade at Chicago, where Milton Friedman helped him change his tyre in the snow, after which he returned to Cambridge a full professor and a fully fledged neoliberal. And then the crash of 2008, the instant vilification of his tribe, the doubts, the pies in the face, the quite unintended intellectual reboot which meant that now, as he lay on his stomach staring at the tarmac, all he knew was that he was an economist, which was surely an ideology in itself.
This story is not currently available online.
A Small but Perfect Happiness
The photos arrived at all hours, nearly always catching Sandra by surprise. She might be sorting through her mother’s things when the phone burbled with another text, or trying to weed the riotous mint from her myrtle beds, or dozing in defeat on the sunroom daybed, the afternoon having gotten away from her. Without her mother in the house it was often too quiet, but these were not interruptions she welcomed. Vrrrt, the intrusive little messenger would trill, and she’d know that another photo was waiting, or three, or ten, or even a bit of rocky video filmed as the sender wove down cobbled lanes or stepped over clods in vineyard rows.
This story is not currently available online.