Dispatches | February 26, 2014


My favorite literary animal.

My favorite literary animal.

There was a day this past January when the temperatures reached the negatives here in mid-Missouri. The insulation plastic was up on my windows, the heat was working hard, and I opened the side door to let my dog outside. She turned to me and gave me a look that said you must be kidding me. There was something in her look that day that recalled the dog in Jack London’s “To Build a Fire”. In London’s story, the dog reluctantly follows a man on a trek across the Yukon during the Gold Rush in temperatures so low that only a fool would try to make the trip. The man forces the dog ahead even though the dog gives his canine signals that the trip is a very very bad idea and that man has no idea what he’s gotten himself into. London’s dog, just by virtue of being a dog, understands more than the man. And my dog on that day, by virtue of being herself, understood the danger of the weather without listening to warnings from forecasters or watching videos of people hurling boiling water into the air to create snow.

If I were writing this as a fictional account something dramatic would have happened. After letting my dog out in the cold her paws might have frozen to the ice or my furnace would have broken down, but that didn’t happen. She went outside and then came back in and we weathered out the cold together in a nice moderate 64-degree apartment. But, that look on she gave me did get me to consider the power of the animal, and more specifically, literary animals, whose hackles and snouts win me over time and again.

My fondness for literary animals tends towards the heartbreaking variety. These types  of  creatures  make me realize how little I know (and how little the characters know too). But there is some comfort in that, too, in recognizing the intelligence of things that do not speak.*

Here are some of my favorites:

1. Haruki Murikami’s name-stealing monkey in “A Shinagawa Monkey”.

2. The dogs in Mark Doty’s Dog Years are part of the reason that this is the only book that’s ever made me cry.


3. The young tapir at the end of Lydia Millet’s How the Dead Dream  plays a pivotal role in the novel’s extraordinary ending.

4. The turtle that struggles to cross the road in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

5. The pack of wolves at the wedding in Willa Cather’s My Antonia.   AttackSeton

6. The rabid dog in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.

7. Richard Wright’s Native Son opens with Bigger Thomas stalking a rat.

8. It’s bad luck for the obedient dog in Annie Proulx’s Postcards whose owner orders him to stay at the top of a hill and then forgets about him until he’s deserted his home and traveled many miles away.

9. Behemoth, the enormous talking cat in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.

10. The ancient collie in Jo Ann Beard’s remarkable essay, “The Fourth State of Matter.”

11. Finally, one of our very own. Stu, the astute German Shepherd in “Explaining Death to a Dog” by Susan Perabo published in The Missouri Review. 8741533522_cedbd28e16_b





*Ok, almost all of these animals don’t speak