Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Monday, January 6, 2014

To Be Given A Second Chance

Whether we are ready for them or not, troubles, small or large, manage to find a way into our lives.  Hardly ever, in batches of threes or constantly, day after day, they shape who we are.  Each individual will face these challenges differently; the best they can with what they know at any given time.

For children, without the years of experience adults have, it can be truly frightening.  Fortunately for many there are humans and canines willing to provide assistance.  Released in August of this year, Mountain Dog (Henry Holt and Company) written by Margarita Engle with illustrations by Olga and Aleksey Ivanov is one of those books on my shelves I've wanted to read for months.  Closing the cover as I finished it yesterday, I paused in gratitude for this remarkable story, wishing I had read it earlier.

In my other life there were pit bulls.
The puppies weren't born vicious,
but Mom taught them how to bite,
turning meanness into money,
until she got caught.

She said she will and she does; the social worker finds a relative eleven-year-old Tony does not know he has.  A great-uncle, Tio Leonilo, a forest ranger, a search-and-rescue member, willingly takes him to live in his two-room cabin, high in the remote Sierra Nevada mountains while his mom is in prison.  Gabe, his chocolate Labrador retriever, is trained as a search-and-rescue dog.

Much like a dream, the exact opposite of the world he has known in Los Angeles, Tony's life is a series of contrasts; his uncle's unexpected kindness compared to his mother's indifference, Gabe's playful loyalty versus the memories of claws, fangs and blood, and the meanness of the city streets replaced with the majestic calm found in the mountains and forest.  School is housed in three rooms, three grades, sixth through eighth, are in one group.

Tony's days are filled with attending class, surprisingly free of gangs and bullies, learning how to understand and navigate in the wilderness, the Pacific Crest Trail, search-and-rescue training and Cowboy Church.  His mind is constantly torn between his growing love for Tio and Gabe and the nightmares haunting him about his former life.  Visits to the prison leave him deeply saddened; his mother usually choosing not to appear.  Several rescues begin to reshape his outlook; as those lost are found Tony's thoughts begin to have a focus, a purpose.

Summer vacation finds Tony spending time with B. B., a bear researcher and friend of his uncle's.  She is also the grandmother of a rather vocal but not unfriendly girl in his class, Gracie. While Tony is with B. B., Gracie is back in India with her parents who are studying elephants.

During hunting season in the fall, a search takes a harrowing turn. Hard lessons are learned.  Decisions are made.  Love provides shelter, the hope of a new future.

All day as I continued to reflect on this book, I though how much of our lives are composed of poetry; how moments are remembered in fragments or phrases.  Reading a novel in verse like Mountain Dog is a bit like being a leaf in a stream.  A stream has a current moving around rocks, sand, grasses, branches or trees.  The leaf navigates around those objects, slowly or quickly, at times resting.  As a reader you need to step in, adjusting to the cadence, the flow, created by the author's use of words.

Margarita Engle draws you into her story with her gifted command of language, alternating chapters in Tony's and Gabe's voices.  Single thoughts, incidents and outcomes are beautifully described, painting vivid pictures of place and people in your mind which travel straight to your heart.  Each person comes with their own stories into Tony's life; stories filled with riches money can't buy.  With her characters Engle shows readers (and Tony) how people through choice can turn trials into triumphs. Here are a few passages from the book.

He had to learn how to survive
by eating seaweed, drinking rain,
and breathing hope...

That night when Tio asks me
about my first day of school, I don't
say much, so he takes me outdoors
in the darkness
to stargaze.
Without any traffic or streetlights,
the forest seems ancient.
I feel like a time traveler
in a distant land
where I don't know
the language
of star shapes. 
Pictures in the sky.
Myths. Stories. Directions.
A way to find north or south
by following a path 
made of light years.

...It's an odor that rhymes
with the weight of aloneness,
so I press my head against the palm
of his hand, hoping to help him feel
the floating lightness
of never-lonely.

The artwork of Olga and Aleksey Ivanov done entirely in black and white with the exception of the cover, compliments important portions of the narrative.  Most of the illustrations offer a close-up perspective of the subject.  My favorite is of Gabe's head nudging Tony's hand opposite the passage I've noted above.

A story of redemption on many levels vividly depicted in a rhythm kindred to our beating hearts; Mountain Dog written by Margarita Engle with illustrations by Olga and Aleksey Ivanov is a compelling, memorable book.  It is a moving portrayal of a boy whose mother is in prison but ultimately is raised up by a dog and people who believe in him, who give him hope through their love.  I highly recommend you read this book and share it immediately with others.

To learn more about Margarita Engle and Olga and Aleksey Ivanov please follow the links embedded in their names to their websites.  This is a link to the publisher's website highlighting the title and giving you a glimpse of eight illustrations from the book.  Please follow this link to a fascinating interview at Watch. Connect. Read. hosted by teacher librarian John Schumacher.

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