Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Review of Whippoorwill

I've been in a realistic fiction rut lately, and I thought I should remedy that because we've been getting students in who are specifically looking for realistic fiction recommendations. I have read some YA which is realistic, but the students who've been asking are 5th and 6th graders, so YA books aren't always appropriate for them.

Whippoorwill caught my eye because of the beautiful black lab on the cover, and the way he looks directly at the reader. I'm a sucker for dog stories.

The story takes place in New Hampshire, so that was an added interest. The story centers on Clair, who lives in the kind of neighborhood we all know: the houses are faded and kind of dilapidated and the yards are filled with defunct cars and assorted junk. The locals call those kinds of people Whippoorwills. One day a dog appears in the yard next door, and when it becomes clear that the dog is just another piece of junk to her neighbor, Clair takes it upon herself to save him. The process of saving him, Wally as he's called, allows her to bond with her Harley-riding biker Dad, as well as the boy next door, who's endured a life much harsher than seventeen years should allow.

Throughout the book, Clair quotes dogmatically (get it?) from a book she reads about dog training, written by a priest who founded a dog sanctuary in Maine. Father Jasper's direct advice regarding the nature and care of dogs, and how humans can help them by ensuring their proper training brought the modern day saint, Father Flanagan, to my mind.

Father Edward Flanagan is the founder of Boys Town, the institute that was famously known for taking in boys from troubled homes, or boys who had no homes, and providing their care, education and upbringing. His philosophy that "there's no such thing as a bad boy" characterized his school which emphasized that any boy, no matter his family or background, could become an honest, hard-working, responsible citizen if he was nurtured properly.

Father Jasper, the fictitious author in Whippoorwill, also seems to base his guidelines for dog care on this kind of sentiment. He writes that by training a dog, a person is helping the dog to be free. The dog is free to play and wander and enjoy life because he will know when to sit/stay/heel/etc. and will then be kept safe by a caring owner. 

This is kind of the perfect book to read in the days leading up to Easter. I don't have cable anymore, but I remember that Boys Town was a popular movie to air on Easter morning. I am not a religious person at all, but this holiday symbolizes redemption and rebirth, and the spirit of the day perfectly illustrates the philosophy that is at work in endeavors like Father Flanagan's Boys Town, or Father Jasper's Maine Academy for Dogs.

It affirms a belief that I hold very close: our past does not determine our future. Most people would say something along the lines of "people can change" but I don't believe that. However, I DO believe that people can GROW if we choose to. Change implies a simple choice, like changing your shirt and replacing it with a different one. People don't work that way. For us to better ourselves, it takes introspection and insight we glean from our experiences, and actively making the choices that we think are best. It's not nearly as easy as changing one's shirt, and it takes a lot longer to accomplish, often it takes a lifetime.

I guess that why this book will now be one I recommend for realistic fiction; because of its realism. It's not like a fairy godmother comes along and waves her to wand to make the world a better place, and nobody has a big, dramatic moment in which they pledge to change and be a better person.  .  .the people do what they can to make the best of their situations, and to better the life of this dog. 

Wally is supposed to be black lab, but it definitely seems more like he's a chocolate one, because his story is bittersweet at times.

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