Saturday, February 28, 2009

Lion Hound
Jim Kjelgaard, il. Raymond Thorley (cover)
1955, Holiday House

There were mule deer, lordly elk, a few antelope, bears, coyotes, many kinds of small game. Among them, like tawny puffs of smoke, slunk the creeping mountain lions that were able to break a bull's neck and yet were so secretive.

In the wild, rich beauty of Arizona's rimrock, two hunters and a hound confront a monstrous lion. Johnny Torrington admires the indepedent red hound Buck from the moment he sees the pup in old Jake Kane's cabin. Buck, however, has a heart for only one master, Kane. The coming of a great mountain lion, raised in captivity to enormous size and possessed of almost supernatural cunning, changes everything.

The lion's mind was full of memories and his heart with hate.

The book is nearly as much the lion's as it is the man's or the dog's. Captured as a cub by hunters who shoot his mother, the lion is used as a roadside attraction, chained to a doghouse and fed regularly. With this easy diet, he grows to over 200lbs, a giant among lions, and when he finally breaks free, he goes on a killing rampage through the rimrock country of Arizona.

Unusually for a Kjelgaard book, this one splits into various perspectives. The mountain lion and the old hunter Jake Kane have the lion's share (er) of the time, the remainder split between Johnny and Buck. Johnny loves the wilderness he lives in and, like many young Kjelgaard characters, wishes he was from an earlier time, when he could have become a trapper and hunter like old Jake. He's decided to become a forest ranger, a job where he can stay in the wild, but he still loves hunting hounds.

"There's a trackin' snow and I'm goin' after that big cat tomorrow. Think Johnny would like to go?"
"Ha!" Allis chuckled. "Try to keep him from it! That boy's almost as hound-crazy as you are!"

Jake Kane and his contemporary, Johnny's grandfather Allis, are old hunters, throwbacks to earlier days, and they both know their time is past. Kane still hunts with a pack, but Allis's last pack is greying and sleeping by the fire. When Kane loses a dog to the lion, he becomes determine to kill the big cat, which is also wreaking havoc with local livestock. But the cat is different than any other cat he's ever chased.

The cat, having been caught in a tree as a cub, learned young to never climb a tree to escape dogs. Motivated as much by rage against humans as by hunger, the lion employs unusual tactics to first avoid, and then kill, its hunters.

Kjelgaard never was one to flinch from violence and killing in his books; the natural settings and the hunting background of most of them made that inevitable in any case. But even for Kjelgaard, there's a lot of death in this book. None of it's exploitative or graphic; the realism of it has a chilling effect.

I read most of Jim Kjelgaard's dog books when I was a child, but I admit I really never had a good idea of where they took place. As far as I was concerned, they were 'west.' So I googled around looking up Rimrock and found that it's both the name of an area in Arizona and a geology term meaning 'a top layer of resistant rock on a plateau outcropping with vertical or near vertical walls.' And Kjelgaard lived in Phoenix for a while.

Sounder - old hound
Pat - old hound
Major - hound in Kane's pack
Doe - hound in Kane's pack
Rowdy - hound in Kane's pack
Flutter - hound in Kane's pack
Sally - hound in Kane's pack, mother of Buck
Old Nick - tomcat

About the Author
Raised largely in the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania, Kjelgaard loved hunting, dogs and the wilderness, which became the three themes of his many books for children. His most famous book, Big Red, became a Disney film in 1962.

Other Books by Author
Big Red
Irish Red
Outlaw Red
Desert Dog
A Nose For Trouble
Snow Dog
Wild Trek
Dave and his dog Mulligan
Duck-Footed Hound
Rescue Dog of the High Pass
Trading Jeff and His Dog
Trailing Trouble
Two Dogs and a Horse

Other Editions:
Bantam Skylark (paperback) 1985

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