Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Lad, A Dog
Albert Payson Terhune
1919, E.P. Dutton

Lad was an eighty-pound collie, thoroughbred in spirit as well as blood. He had the benign dignity that was a heritage from endless generations of high-strain ancestors. He had, too, the gay courage of a d'Artagnan, and an uncanny wisdom. Also - who could doubt it, after a look into his mournful brown eyes - he had a Soul.

Having thrilled to that typical Terhune introduction, I have to plunge into the negatives first. This book - this whole series - is old. Very old. By today's standards, the Master is abusive to his adored dogs. He uses a 'dog whip' on Lady and Lad in the first chapter. He's also abusive toward other people. He lets Lad, slumped miserably on guard at the Mistress's sick bed, snarl at the nurse every time she passes. He relentlessly lectures anyone who objects to being constantly supervised by an 80lb dog with a mild case of resentment toward outsiders that Lad is a perfect gentleman. He seems to see no contradiction in this view of the dog, and his many tales of Lad trying to kill people - not just bite, but actually rip their throats out.

In one of the many jolly recollections of Lad's defense of The Place, the collie, having bitten and driven off a would-be burglar, pursues the man. As the Master arrives on the scene:

On the ground below, stunned by striking against a stone jardiniere in his fall, the burglar sprawled senseless upon his back. Above him was Lad, his searching teeth at last having found their coveted throat-hold. Steadily, the great dog was grinding his way through toward the jugular.

These 'boy's own adventure' meets Hemingway action scenes are thrilling. I saw nothing wrong with them as a child. As an adult, I'm forced to admit that Terhune was a jerk, and his dogs were scary.

Now for the good. Terhune's ruthless description of breeding trends, voiced by a show-ring expert in "For A Bit Of Ribbon," rings true:

"The up-to-date collie - this year's style, at least - is bred with a borzoi (wolfhound) head and with graceful, small bones. What's the use of his having brain and scenting power? He's used for exhibition or kept as a pet nowadays - not to herd sheep. Long nose, narrow head.."

Lad's Lassie Come Home-style travails lost in New York City are wildly over the top (though they seemed absolutely real and perfectly acceptable when I was a child who just loved to read dog books) but the chapter "Lost!" contains a passionate cry of compassion at the plight of a lost dog.

A dog, at some turn in the street, misses his master - doubles back to where the human demigod was last seen - darts ahead once more to find him, through the press of other human folk - halts, hesitates, begins the same maneuvers all over again; then stands, shaking in panic at his utter aloneness.

But it is in "The Gold Hat" that Terhune presents a scene that encapsulates the unique bond between dogs and humans. The Mistress is trying to get Lad to go through an intricate set of maneuvers generally known only to trained sheepdogs. The willing collie, utterly puzzled, does his best to obey her.

Her pointing hand waved him ahead and, as before, he follower its guidance. Walking heavily, his brain more and more befogged, Lad obeyed... Head and tail down, he went. But, as he passed the third of those silly posts, she recalled him. Gleeful to know he was no longer in disgrace, he galloped toward the Mistress; only to be halted again...Utterly bewildered at his usually moodless Mistress' crazy mood and spurred by the sharp reprimand in her voice, Lad moved away at a crestfallen walk. Four times he stopped and looked back at her, in piteous appeal, asking forgiveness of the unknown fault for which she was ordering him away; but always he was met by the same fierce "Go on!"

What other animal has both the intelligence and the patience to attempt the incomprehensible with us? Lad, of course, completes the course and wins the day.

Anniversary edition illustrated by Sam Savitt (pictured)

Dogs and other animals
Lad - sable and white Rough Collie
Lady - gold and white Rough Collie
Wolf - gold and white Rough Collie
Knave - red/gold Rough Collie with black 'saddle'
Ch. Coldstream Guard - gold and white Rough Collie
Melisande - Prussian Sheep Dog (maybe)
Ch. Lochnivar III - blue merle Rough Collie
Mac - gold and white Rough Collie
Rex - mixed breed of Rough Collie and bull terrier
Peter Grimm - cat
Tipperary - gray Persian cat
Tenebris - Holstein bull

Other Books by Author
Lad, A Dog
Lad Of Sunnybank
Further Adventures of Lad
My Friend The Dog
Buff, A Collie
The Critter - And Other Dogs
A Dog Named Chips
A Highland Collie
Gray Dawn
Lochinvar Luck
The Way Of A Dog
Dog Of The High Sierras
Collie To The Rescue

Other editions:
Paperback, Signet

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