Literary Duos: Canine And Human

Being a companion is where dogs are most brilliant, which is hugely fortunate for humans, who so often aren't as gifted at things like loyalty, tolerance, responsibility, caring, love.
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From the time early dogs came in from the wild and stopped acting like wolves, "dog people" have known that having one around isn't only about protection, work, status, or simply owning a pet. My novel The Mountaintop School for Dogs and Other Second Chances is the story of some dogs who came out of abusive pasts and have every reason to give up on people altogether, never mind trust a human as a teacher, companion, family member, loving friend. But trust they do. Being a companion is where dogs are most brilliant, which is hugely fortunate for humans, who so often aren't as gifted at things like loyalty, tolerance, responsibility, caring, love.

Here are some literary dogs and their significant human others:

1. Orion and SiriusIn the anthology of literature written across the night sky, the big hunter strides, shield up, sword dangling, his dog Canis Major heeling beautifully, represented best by that brightest star, and one of our closest, Sirius. Hesiod, Homer, and Virgil, among many other ancients, railed against that dog as the bringer of the heat season and plagues of destruction. But they never said how lucky Orion is to not be up there all alone.
2. Elizabeth Barrett Browning and FlushIt's easy to imagine the raised Bloomsbury-group eyebrows at the news Virginia Woolf was writing a biography of the red cocker spaniel who might indeed have been closer in many ways to his human than her husband was. And, with illustrations and gripping adventures that counteract all the hours Miss Barrett was stuck in bed because Robert Browning hadn't yet turned up! What happened -- no surprise -- was that Virginia Woolf set the gold standard for prose not only about the inner and outer life of a dog, but the inner and outer life of that thing we call bonding, sometimes without really understanding how it works and grows and grows.
3. The Yukon man and his dog Jack London's short story "To Build a Fire" is the dark side of Call of the Wild. John Thornton and Buck of the novel are good-friend archetypes, as deep and lasting as if carved in rock. In the story, an unnamed man, lost in an blizzard while heading back to a mining camp, has no fire to keep warm, so he wishes to kill his unnamed companion and use the fur as a blanket. This is after wolfing down biscuits while the hungry dog watches in stillness. The man dies. The dog self-rescues and trots back to camp. He knows the way, but the human had never considered allowing him to be his leader.
4. Enzo and Denny SwiftOld Enzo, talking Enzo, philosopher, beloved character, wise observer, devoted helper, planner, worrier, best friend forever: that's the dog-narrator of The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. When Denny comes home to him, Enzo tells us in his lovely, soulful voice, "I can smell the day on him. I can smell everything he's done." Doesn't that pretty much encapsulate a world and a history of human-dog bonding?
5. Asta and Nick/NoraIt would not be surprising if someone who saw The Thin Man as a movie before picking up the book thought a proof reader or copy editor had made a grave mistake. Wait! Asta, a star of the show, is a wire-haired terrier! But then, the real Nick is portly, out of shape. The real Nora is sort of based on Lillian Hellman. The real Asta, as created by Dashiell Hammett, is "a Schnauzer and not a cross between a Scottie and an Irish terrier." But in partnership with the human couple, the dog steals scenes, and the breed has nothing to do with that.
6. Ribsy and HenryIn Beverly Cleary's Henry Huggins series, pale and shaggy-haired Henry, an urban third-grader, is eating ice cream in a drug store (it was the 1950s) when a woebegone stray dog wanders in, so thin his ribs stick out. The dog ends up with the ice cream and a rescuer. Henry names him Ribsy and they have a book together, then Ribsy has one of his own: Ribsy, about the adventures and terrors of a dog who's lost. Reunion takes place. My son at the age of eight, upon finishing Ribsy, declared he'd never read another work of literature because he'd already read the most perfect thing ever written.
7. Banga and Pontius Pilate Anyone who loves fiction with a dog in it and hasn't yet read The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (or maybe it's time to read it again) will be intrigued to know that a Russian novel many people know as a masterpiece, if not among of the best of all time, isn't "only" about the devil, as is widely assumed. Pontius Pilate steps away from the New Testament to be a character and he actually loves someone who loves and respects him back.

Patti Smith wrote a song for that dog: "Banga." In her song, "Loyalty lives and we don't know why. And his paws are pressed to the spine of the sky."

8. Tiger and Arthur Gordon PymThe longest thing Edgar Allan Poe wrote was the strange and extraordinary "Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket," ostensibly an adventure at sea with wreckage, violent weather, mutinous crewmen, ghosts, racism, plot twists that are completely insane, and multiples of horrors that make most of Poe's stories seem tame. It's been called everything from trash to pure genius, but it's a coming-of-age story too. The young Arthur Pym is not without a friend: his dog Tiger, who mysteriously manages to get on board before the heavily fated ship sails off. This being Poe, when Pym and his dog are reunited, Pym is a cabin being clueless, and thinks the dog rushing at him is some malevolent beast showing up to attack him. Then Pym comes to his senses, and they are a couple again, just in time for the journey.
9. Dorothy and TotoOne of the luckiest things that happened to me as a child reader was that I deeply knew and loved the book before seeing the movie, which barely made an impression on me, because suspension of disbelief did not occur at the star: how could anyone think Judy Garland and that movie dog were Dorothy and Toto?

The Library of Congress put The Wonderful Wizard of Oz online. It takes only a few seconds to reach L. Frank Baum's Introduction, then Chapter One, "The Cyclone," with its illustrations of the real Dorothy as a young girl in a polka-dot dress, her long braids real-life and slightly messy. Her dog is down in the corner, the actual Toto, on all fours, looking a little worried, like, "I wonder what's going to happen." The word "cute," probably the first adjective for the movie Toto, is one the real Toto would probably bark at, not in a friendly way.

10. Argos and OdysseusWell, Homer. Why doesn't Aeneas have a dog with him when he leaves Troy? Why doesn't Dido have a dog to comfort and maybe save her? What was the matter with Virgil to not put dog companions in The Aeneid? You'd think he was helping the whole thing of Greek epics being superior to Roman ones. But then, there's Homer on the faithful, heroic, patient, suffering, noble canine: "The doom of dark death now closed over the dog, Argos, when, after nineteen years had gone by, he had seen Odysseus."
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