As I’m writing a novel about dogs, I’ve been trying to find and read similar works, motivated mostly by the desire to avoid doing stuff that’s already been done. Some of the books have been terrible; some have been interesting but flawed; some have been good.
The latest one I’ve read, A Dog’s Purpose, surprisingly falls into the last category. I say “surprisingly” because I was not expecting much. Yes, yes, I know it was a best seller and has received lots of great reviews: so does every subcontracted POS that James Patterson slaps his name on. “Bestseller” plus “Lots of Great Reviews” does not always equal “Good.” Especially with novels.
But ADP is good. Narrated by a dog, the book follows the lives of said dog as it is born, lives, dies, and is reincarnated a few times over in modern-day America: first as Toby, a feral mongrel puppy; then as Bailey, a beloved Golden Retriever; then as Ellie, a search-and-rescue German Shepherd; finally as Bear (later Buddy), a black Lab.
The dog meets many humans throughout its lives, bonding with several of them, fearing and being mistreated by some. The majority of the book depicts the dog’s life as Bailey, beloved pet of Ethan, a boy who grows into a young man alongside his best friend. The second-largest chunk describes life as Ellie, with the shorter sections as Toby and Bear/Buddy bookending the novel.
Author W. Bruce Cameron is certainly not the first to write a story from a dog’s point of view, and for the most part, he successfully overcomes three big challenges that I’ve discovered in my own attempt.
The first (and the most difficult) is to convincingly anthropomorphize the dog character(s). That is, give the dog human-like qualities so readers can relate to them. In real life, we don’t know if dogs can think, imagine, or remember, but Cameron persuades us that his protagonist can. Indeed, Toby/Bailey/Ellie/Buddy can remember events, people, and skills from past lives: that’s a smart dog he has there. The trick is to not make one’s dog character seem too much like a human, breaking the reader’s suspension of disbelief. Cameron does a good job of keeping his dog a “dog.”
Another challenge (should the author decide to attempt it) is to defamiliarize the milieu that the dog lives in. Meaning, depict the setting differently to convince the reader that they are experiencing the world from a dog’s perspective instead of a human’s. This can be very tricky to pull off, and Cameron doesn’t try too hard here. But what he does, he does well.
The third challenge is to avoid the “Goofy/Schmaltzy” pitfall. Dogs in pop culture are portrayed as either stupid and silly, or loving and loyal. With the former, they’re often shown doing funny, simple-minded “doggy” things: pooping, peeing, dragging butts on the ground, licking genitals, humping legs, chasing cars and cats and balls and sticks, doing tricks, begging for food, etc. It’s the dog as clownish simpleton.
With the latter, the dogs enthusiastically express total and unreserved love for and loyalty to their owners, bear hardships and separations for them, sometimes rescue their masters or others from peril, sometimes undertake tremendous journeys or efforts to be reunited with them. It’s the dog as loving more completely and fully than any human could.
Or sometimes, you get both
For the most part, Cameron avoids getting “goofy” or “schmaltzy.” But it’s hard not to go there, especially when he uses some of the expected “doggy” tropes, such as the Tearful Last Visit to the Vet. Oh, come on: that’s hardly a spoiler. You KNOW that’s coming (twice, actually).
Because I thought Cameron largely succeeds with the three challenges, and because I found the book interesting (albeit predictable), I enjoyed A Dog’s Purpose. It’s no contender to replace The Call of the Wild as the dog book, assuming there is such a thing, but it was a good read.
However, I’m going to skip the sequels, A Dog’s Journey and The Dogs of Christmas. Some books (The Hunger Games comes to mind) are better as one-offs and not as a series, and I thought the story of the dog who lives and dies and lives again and ultimately finds out why has been told as best as it can be. Let’s leave it at that.