Yes, you’ve seen Margarita Engle’s name in this blog before. No, I am not on her payroll, but she writes what I like to read so you may see her again. Mountain Dog is a bit different from some of her other books, in that it is set in present day America rather than in a historical background.
The descriptions I read of the book included many causes of interest to me – children of parents in prison, refugees from oppressive governments, a cowboy church, adjusting to bilingual cultures – and a new cause in search and rescue dogs that sounded intriguing. From past experience, I counted on Margarita to weave a poetic story. I was not disappointed.
Back and forth, Tony the Boy and Gabe the Dog tell the story of loss and gain. They use the word “rhyme” frequently and effectively to express their feelings in an almost lost meaning of harmonizing or being in accord. Enough science for a six week term of elementary school weaves deftly through the poetry. [I’m taking this as validation for what people thought was a strange choice on my part to graduate with a double major in English and Science.]
Just a few examples of many lines that caught my ear to whet your appetite:
• On his first visit to his mother in prison: “The social worker pointed out different groups – Catholics, Hindus, Protestants, Muslims . . . Prison, she said, is open to all.”
• Adapting to wilderness life with Uncle Tio: “Life in a tent feels so different that it’s easy for me to pretend I’m on an expedition in a magical land where nightmares don’t exist and all the dreams are peaceful.”
• After another visit with his mother when he unsuccessfully tries to give her one more chance: “If I turned into a tattoo on Mom’s face, I’d be a teardrop.”
• Describing the two more weeks of school before his anticipated summer in the wilderness: “No cricket music or tree rings, just the speed of airplanes and other really hard word problems that send 99 percent of my mind flying away.”
• His inability to trust in real hope: “Every time I start believing in safety, something happens that makes me feel like an old toothbrush in the lost-and-found box at school. Nobody wants somebody else’s trash.”
Lest you worry, the ending doesn’t cast a rosy glow on all participants, but it is entirely satisfying. You could improve the way I read it by having a middle school student who likes reading aloud to share the two voices with you. Just be sure to let the student choose whether to be the boy or the dog.