The Dog Dies, Part IV: Conclusions

Part I –     – Part II –     – Part III

There are three basic problems with this kind of book. The first is their distorted moral vision: that life is gruesome and boys need to toughen up. These books may be beautifully written and of high literary quality (Bambi and The Red Pony qualify), but their vision of life, relationships, and emotions is so hopelessly out-of-date that there is no longer any value in making kids read them.

The second problem happens when the death or suffering of the animal is just badly written. John Gardner in The Art of Fiction talks about “sentimentality,” which is an attempt to affect the reader’s emotions with cliché or melodrama, as opposed to genuine emotion honestly earned. The death of Jack in By the Shores of Silver Lake is sentimentality: trite, manipulative, flat. Wilder was not a skilled writer — forgive me, but she wasn’t — and she was unable to do better than grasp at overused phrases and images to try to achieve her emotional effects.

Finally, there is the questionable psychology that leads adults to believe that children, who do of course experience grief in their lives, will be helped by re-experiencing it in fiction. A quick count of the number of Newbery and other award winners on the list of Dead Dog books shows how prevalent this idea is. Adult critics sometimes make high-handed pronouncements about how children will be affected: “readers begin to understand the value of life, the ever-present possibility of death, and the need for self-reliance.” I see little evidence that Dead Dog stories have this kind of improving effect upon children.

It is also suspicious that the object lesson, which supposedly will help the child learn about grief, is so often an animal: a loyal and loving animal that cannot understand the reasons for its suffering. Could this possibly be because it enhances the melodrama? Even weirder, when an animal is the point-of-view character, then it is often the animal’s beloved smaller animal that suffers or dies. One cannot help suspecting that a certain kind of adult does not so much have an ear for literary quality as a taste for making children cry.

10 thoughts on “The Dog Dies, Part IV: Conclusions

  1. Susie

    I always saw the Death Of Jack (Shores of Silver Lake) as a positive, and possibly a deliberate act on the part of the dog. He was too old to accompany & protect again, so when he saw his family preparing for another journey, he politely passed away so as not to burden them, thus releasing Laura from the burden of caring for an aging disabled, family member. Any attempts at sentimentality were obviously lost for me!

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    1. James

      Given Rose Wilder’s libertarian politics, that’s a really nasty interpretation. Radical self reliance with a dash of eugenics, anyone?

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      1. James

        Ayn Rand only started publishing about the time that Rose W was switching to libertarian non-fiction – so maybe it was the other way round?

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      2. Sarah

        Not knowing anything about the author’s politics when I read it, I had the same reaction as Susie – that Jack was such a noble and dedicated animal that he made the ultimate sacrifice. It was maudlin but effective at making me cry.

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      3. Susie

        I was 7, maybe 8 years old when I thought those thoughts and Flash the Sheep Dog & Blackbeauty were my favorite books. Ann Rynd did not rise on my horizon until Junior High. Tho perhaps Jack the dog was a time traveling fan of hers.

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  2. Linnaea Boone Wilson

    Yes, thank you!! I for one am ready for us to be done with the ridiculous emphasis on emotionally stark worldviews in award winning literature.

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    1. Susie

      I agree. I think the most important lesson kids under 15 should learn about literature is that it is FUN and entertaining. Schools should be choosing their assigned reading with enjoyment as a primary consideration.

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