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Indie Groundbreaking Book: Short Leash: A Memoir of Dog Walking and Deliverance
New Memoir Uses the �Dog Book� Motif to Tell an Emotional Human Story
“You think dogs will not be in heaven? I tell you, they will be there long before any of us.”
—Robert Louis Stevenson
Ever since 2005’s Marley and Me became a must-read—and possibly even before that—bookstores everywhere have been inundated with a surge of “dog books.” These stories, both fictional and true, narrative and instructional, have pretty much covered every angle of pet ownership, from bad dogs to well-trained pooches who win national dog shows, from the euphoria of the early puppy days to the crushing sadness of final ones. When you pick up a dog book from the shelves, you pretty much know what you’re going to get, but the well-trodden territory is so welcoming and familiar that you can’t help but read it anyway. Indeed, books about dogs typically cover ground that, while enjoyable, is the exact antithesis of groundbreaking, something that might cause readers to do a double take at this month’s selection for our groundbreaking indie book.
But our pick, Janice Gary’s Short Leash: A Memoir of Dog Walking and Deliverance, published by the Michigan State University Press, isn’t quite a dog book—even though the title and the cover picture both relate to a big, lovable black lab named Barney. And it’s not even that Gary’s text is a complete departure from the dog book formula, because most of the formulaic elements are still very much at play here. Owning a pet, almost by definition, is a series of up and downs, and it would be a blow to the authenticity of Short Leash if the book didn’t cover the basics, from the mundane dog walks in the woods to the disobedient encounters with other pets, all the way to the deterioration of health that always seems to come far too soon. What makes Short Leash an effective, moving, and ultimately groundbreaking text is that it uses those elements to carry a larger story. This isn’t a book about Barney, though he certainly plays a pivotal role, nor is it a book entirely about the author, though we get the scope and sweep of her own life story along the way. No, Short Leash is instead an impossibly beautiful portrait of two damaged souls and how they lean on one another to heal, hurt, and find their way back to happiness after unspeakable tragedy.
When we meet Gary at the outset of the text, she’s running away, afraid of her past, her present, and even her own shadow. Once a free-spirited player in the self-described “hippy culture,” Gary’s world is shattered one night when she is attacked and raped. She lives in perpetual fear of a repeat occurrence for much of her adult life, retreating to an existence with no adventure and little happiness until the day she finds Barney, a tail-wagging Labrador/Rotweiler mix, in the parking lot of a Piggly Wiggly. Gary adopts him, and for a little while, he serves as her crutch, giving her the courage to venture beyond the walls of her home and out into the world. When Barney is attacked by a vicious German Shepherd, however, he morphs his fear of other dogs into frighteningly aggressive tendencies of his own. So while he is still the calm, kind, and loyal dog he has always been around people and even around small children, he turns into a monster the moment another dog get too close.
As Short Leash moves forward, Gary and Barney both face their fears, never escaping the twin events that have left them with baggage to carry for life, but joining together to live and thrive in spite of that baggage. Gary uses Barney and the walks she shares with him to rediscover her own creative and adventurous spirit, turning musings on nature into entrancing blocks of prose that inspire her to go back to school and pursue a master’s degree in writing. Barney, meanwhile, gives Gary unconditional love and companionship in exchange for her understanding of his Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde problem, a flaw that not many dog owners would be able to overlook. The relationship we see building between these two characters along the way is deeper, more complex, and more beautiful than bonds are often portrayed on the page, and it’s a reminder of how, sometimes, a dog can understand us in ways that our human friends never can. There’s a silent solidarity in the grins that Barney gives Gary during their myriad walks in a local park, and the way they seem to say “I love you, I’m here for you, let me hold you up” will have many readers grasping for the tissues, even while others grin in nostalgic remembrance of the pets they have loved.
But even if you’ve never owned a pet, you will find elements to appreciate here. Short Leash is so much more than a story of pet ownership: this is a book about overcoming fears and reclaiming dreams, about spiritual awakening and recovery, and about finding the helping hand (or paw) that makes you whole again. Through it all, Gary writes with a sure-hand, crafting beautiful, rhapsodic passages that span every emotion. There’s an overwhelming sadness prevalent through many of them, due largely to the horrible tragedy that so clearly derailed the author’s life during her teenage years, but there’s also a sense of immense strength and resilience. After all, if Janice Gary can find solace in the simple act of walking her dog each day, then surely there must be hope for the rest of us.
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Craig Manning is currently studying English and Music at Western Michigan University. In addition to writing for Independent Publisher, he maintains a pair of entertainment blogs, interns at the Traverse City Business News, and writes for Rockfreaks.net and his college newspaper. He welcomes comments or questions concerning his articles via email, at firstname.lastname@example.org.