Dad’s a drunk named Bull, brother Jimmy is an ex con dealing heroin, and Cooper Harrison is stepping in a pile of donkey manure on a regular basis as part of his job as the animal control officer for a small New England town called Harmony Farms. Cooper was once a cop in Boston as part of an elite K-9 unit, but those days seem long gone at the start of this latest novel by Susan Wilson called The Dog Who Saved Me (St. Martin’s Press, New York, N.Y., 342 pages, soft cover, $25.99).
Ms. Wilson hit the New York Times best seller list with her books The Dog Who Danced and One Good Dog. She lives on Martha’s Vineyard and although the setting of her new novel is located in America, the setting is very Vineyard. The town is a bucolic one that is often divided into folks who have lived there forever and wealthy second-home residents.
Cooper’s journey from big city cop to living back in his hometown is also the journey of grief. While on assignment to catch a mad bomber in the wake of the marathon bombings, Cooper’s faithful K-9 partner Argos was blown up. In the aftermath, Cooper quit the force and returned home to try to forget. But home is not such a good place to lick your wounds. His brother Jimmy was just released from jail and is back dealing again.
The Dog Who Saved Me alternates narratives between Cooper’s first person voice and a more distant third person trailing Bull, the two brothers’ father who is trying to carve out a meagre life from the one he wasted due to the bottle. But the heart of the book is a dog, or rather two dogs, one that died violently and one struggling to stay alive. Another perspective used is that of a young golden retriever, abused and shot by his owner and now trying to survive in the woods.
The chapters from the dog’s perspective give the book a true moodiness, perhaps even more so than those from the perspectives of all the humans struggling to overcome their individual traumas. Crawling around in a scared dog’s mind as it views people with both skepticism and curiosity feels refreshing, and also gives the book a stamp of real animal authenticity. Ms. Wilson definitely knows her dogs. She also gives thanks in her acknowledgements to Barbara Prada, the animal control officer of Edgartown. Perhaps it was from Ms. Prada that she learned about the ubiquity of miniature donkey manure, and how to empathize with women who collect cats.
The book also employs flashbacks to Cooper’s childhood, which is definitely not a picture of small-town goodness. Dad was either absent or violent, and older brother Jimmy was not someone you could turn to for warmth. Mom was killed in a car accident, and it was to a local named Deke that young Cooper turned for support. The use of flashbacks helps to both soften the harsh reality of these situations, we are out of the head of Cooper, and increase the drama as we encounter them in real time. Flashbacks are also utilized to bring immediacy to Cooper’s work on the K-9 unit, and the death of his beloved Argos, named for Odyssey’s faithful companion, the only one who recognized him after his 20-year journey.
Cooper has sworn to never love a dog again, just as he’s sworn not to fall for a woman, (he is recently divorced), nor even speak to his father. That’s a lot of baggage to hold onto and the weight slowly begins to loosen as the book quietly goes about the business of putting a heartbeat back into its main character.
On the Vineyard, Ms. Wilson also takes care of horses, and her book features a love interest for Cooper, a former bond trader named Natalie who after her husband died, moved to Harmony Farms to start a farm for injured horses. Slowly, very slowly, Cooper and Natalie begin a romance that helps heal not just their hearts but their psyches, too. The dog gets a good home too, but not the one you would have expected.