Friday, April 3, 2009

Sheep (2006)

Valerie Hobbs
2006, Farrar Straus Giroux

My name is Jack, but it wasn't always. I've had so many names I can't even remember them all. Some names were good, some were bad. Some I don't like to remember. But I like the name Jack just fine. It's the one Luke gave me, and he's my best friend.

Clearly, Hobbs can establish a distinct voice. Her young Border Collie narrator looks back on his varied life with a consistently distracted tone that fits the breed quite nicely; border collies, for all their famed intentness, are oddly distractable. They don't miss anything. I've had two mixes, and they were both that odd blend of focused action and scatty reaction. I don't think either of them thought of their sire as Dad, though, or cared two damns about human musings on Hope and Dreams. Where Hobbs' voice goes wrong is that she anthropomorphizes her dogs beyond simply having thoughts and words. Her hero is just a furry boy - eager to prove himself, briefly infatuated with a baffling girl, determined to help a friend, etc. There is no mention of smells or tastes, the two senses that dominate a real dog's life. The author clearly doesn't trust her audience to read the dog's story as a dog's story, allowing the human plots to unfold largely through action and implication. Instead, she overuses exposition shamelessly. Luke, the sulky orphan the dog befriends, talks incessantly to make sure the audience gets the storyline. And the dog has a human understanding of everything, even rousing a couple to choose his Luke as their new son. This neurotic understanding of human affairs, not dancing, is demeaning to dogs.

More minor quibbles:

It can be a bit preachy and folksey:
Pg 1 - "I was giving up hope, which is about the worst thing you can do. Hope is everything."
Pg. 114 - "Truth is, a fellow doesn't need a whole lot to make him happy. A place to bed down, warm food in his belly, honest work, good company."

Language like "There was still a lot of hope left in this kid. He had to have some folks, that's all." is increasingly common in children's books. I'm not very enthusiastic about it, but that's just a personal dislike. Hobbs apparently moved from New Jersey to California in her teens, not to the ocean or to a city but into what was then a very rural region around Ojai. So at least it's authentic.

This book is intensely old-fashioned, more along the lines of the The Boxcar Children or Depression-era tales than a modern story. There is an orphanage, a crude dog pound, a broadly painted evil circus with vile low-class men who beat dogs to death. There is even the highly requisite train sequence where a boy flirts with disaster on a railroad track. Tonally, there is that desperate poverty emphasis on hope and dreams, and the sense that running away is the only solution to a bad situation because staying to fight would be too costly and dangerous. If this were a period piece, it would make more sense. Interestingly, one interview I found online quotes Hobbs as saying that among the books that influenced her growing up were Albert Payson Terhune's dog books. Now that makes sense; Sheep is very close in feel to Terhune's world. They share that sensibility of a desperately dangerous outside world, where the heroic dog struggles to survive and help his people against villains and hostile indifference. Terhune, whose books I adore, infused all his stories with an intense paranoia; every hand is always set against his heroes, the simplest situations are fraught with danger. Sheep also has that overblown terror. It seems more suited to Terhune's era than Hobbs's.

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