Sunday, September 30, 2007

Merle's Door by Ted Kerasote [Review]

Title: Merle's Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog

Author: Ted Kerasote

Copyright: 2007 (Harcourt, Inc., Orlando, FL)

Length: 398 pages (including notes and index)

Genre: Non-fiction; Dogs, Human-Animal Relations

Summary: Kerasote was a 40-something bachelor with minimal obligations when he picks Merle up during a canoe trip with some buddies. Merle's Door is the story of how two creatures -- man and dog -- learn to adapt to one another's presence and play to one another's strengths. It isn't a story of how a man trained a dog or how having a particular dog changed a man's life. This is a loving story of two unique individuals, forming an emotional bond through mutual understanding. Kerasote conveys his sense of what Merle's thoughts were with a certain amount of anthropomorphizing but always with the awareness that a dog is a biological entity with an independent understanding of the world and his role in that world. It's critical in describing this book accurately to say that it is simply not a conventional pet story. Kerasote has far too much respect for Merle for him to diminish Merle's standing by using that term. They are two biological creatures sharing a space and while Kerasote may be the "alpha", he's not the "master".

Kerasote tells us Merle's story from their initial meeting until the day Merle dies. I don't intend that as a spoiler but, as someone who has always loved dogs, I cannot in good conscience avoid warning prospective readers that the book's ending is sad even as it closes with a celebration of a happy dog's life. Perhaps it is because Kerasote manages to convey so well how we interact with dogs, with ruffling of the fur around their necks or by scratching behind an ear or under a jowl, making their eyes close in delight. He conveys the language of dogs as they interact with us in return, using head butts, snorts and grins. There is plenty of solid scientific, veterinary, and naturalist information contained in the book as Kerasote expands his own knowledge of what Merle needs to thrive whether in a city or town or out in the forests of Wyoming. If you believe that there is little to be condemned as harshly as a bad dog owner, then you should will most likely love Merle's Door.

Extract: The author's web site provides an excerpt. But I'll include this bit as an additional idea of who the book's about:

Part of Merle's equanimity, I thought, might have been attributed to the fact that I'm a relatively calm person, and he was therefore reflecting my demeanor, just as so many domestic dogs reflect the personalities of their human companion. Part might also have been created by his having spent his puppyhood among Navajos, a dignified and reserved people. And part of his composure was most likely influenced by his hound genes, whic h he seemed to have inherited along with his Lab blood. A friend had shown me some photos of Redbone Coonhounds, and some of them could have been Merle's brother and sisters, aside from their pendulous ears.

There are pictures here, if you (like me) are curious as to just what breed he might be, but the text is the best picture of Merle.

Also Relevant: I did love this book; it reminded me of owning dogs and loving them. I hadn't expected to love it when I received it from Anna. I even admit to rolling my eyes when the initial description of it arrived in an email. But it is such a solid work, so lacking in the saccharine qualities that I usually associate with animal books. Kerasote has written a lovely and intelligent book in honor of his companion. I recommend this book heartily; read it, think about it and come away with a different idea of what amazing creatures dogs are and can be in relationships with humans.

P.S. I should have noted for those who are cat-lovers that there is a cat in this book as well, but as you might be aware, cats are reserved creatures and less likely to cooperate fully with a biographer. But Grey Cat is in the book.