Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Bel Ria
Sheila Burnford
1977, Little, Brown & Company

In Memoriam

Amidst the confusion of the German invasion of France, a small circus dog loses his owner to German air attacks and latches onto British corporal Sinclair, who had a brief encounter with the little circus and watched helplessly as it was obliterated. When German planes sink the destroyer on which he's being evacuated, Sinclair is injured and the dog becomes the responsibility of Neil MacLean, a sick berth attendant on the British destroyer Tertian. Now named Ria, the dog becomes an unlikely agent of change for the withdrawn, curt MacLean, who never liked animals and who is at first affronted by the smallness and delicacy of the canine life he's been charged with. This little dancing dog.

On the fourth note the toe began to tap, and the dog rose to his hind legs and began to dance. The tune had a lilting rythym, and in perfect time he pirouetted in a circle, forepaws held out and head held high.

Slowly, MacLean begins to respect the fragile Ria's stubbornness, so like his own, and for the first time in his life forms an affection for an animal. But he has promised to return the dog to Sinclair and when the ship takes a brief rest from its work patrolling the supply convoys that are all that keeps Britain alive, he sends the dog ashore with a crewmate's sister. When her house is bombed that night, it seems that Ria must have been killed. But the delicate little dog survives, and finds a new home and a new identity as Bel, pampered pet of elderly Mrs. Alice Tremorne. And as the war ends in Europe, events come to an almost full circle as Donald Sinclair manages to make his way back to the circus dog he'd scooped reluctantly out of the mud nearly five years earlier.

Burnford, best known for The Incredible Journey, surpasses herself here with a book that manages one of the harder tricks of fiction - putting a fictional personal story against the bitter background of war without taking away from either. Here, the tragedy of a small dog is given the same full consideration as the war; neither aspect of the plot detracts from the other. There is no sense of a dog's story cheapening the horror of war.

It's clear from the dedication of the book, quoted above, that Burnford regarded her book as being about the war, as well as her characters.

Reissued in 2006 by The New York Review Of Books Children's Collection

Bel/Ria - small male mixed-breed dog (probably terrier/poodle)
Louis - Capuchin monkey
Barkis - white male bull terrier
Hyacinthe - tortieshell female cat

Other books by Author
The Incredible Journey (1961)

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