The secret of relating to a trouble mind is to understand it. And that is no easy task. One needs to spend time listening, talking and learning what caused that mind to be troubled to begin with. What hurts it has suffered. What lies it has been fed. What anger it is feeling. Allan Stratton has given us such insight to one such troubled young mind through his novel The Dogs.
Mom left Dad when I was eight. She says he’d been acting strange since forever. I have flashes of things, but I’m not sure what’s read, what’s dreams and what’s things I overheard Mom say to my grandparents.
Anyway, Mom moved us far away; Dad came to see me a few times on supervised visits at some government building. Then, all of a sudden, we moved again. According to Mom, Dad did things she’ll tell me about when I’m older. So – hey, Mom – When’s older? This is our fifth move and nothing’s changed, except I’m more messed up than ever.
Mom says change is great: “Embrace change.” It’s like her motto or something. Only, for Mom, change means planning where to run next before we’ve unpacked. From the get-go, she’s scouting escape routes “in case of an emergency.” So I’m hardly surprised she knows where we’re going.
Stratton tells a brilliant tale through the eyes of Cameron. He and his mom have been on the move away from his father for a number of years and this recent move has brought them to an isolated farmhouse. Cameron is feeling out of sorts with the move and he is having settling in. He endures hours: of loneliness, bullying at school, confusion and sadness. But as he starts to explore the history of the farmhouse, he brings some drama and excitement to his life.
I say goodnight and head back to my place. Good thing I have a flashlight. Mr. Sinclair’s corn rises above my head, a forest of darkness. The only sound is my feet on the stones at the side of the road.
Thoughts echo inside my head. When did Mr. McTavish get killed by the dogs? Where was Jacky? Gone with is mother or dead and buried?
A cornstalk snaps in the field. I stop. Whatever I heard stops too. I scan my light across the cornstalks. Is something hiding in there?
Who cares? It’s likely a rabbit or coyote; either way, they’re scared of people.
I walk faster. There’s another crunch from the field. Whatever’s out there isn’t scared. It’s following me. Sounds of panting. Dogs. The dogs. I start to run. So do they. They bound though the stalks beside me.
No, there’s nothing there, it’s all in my mind – just my sleeves rubbing against my jacket, my feet on the gravel, my breathing.
I hear Jacky: “I told you. It’s all right. They won’t hurt you. I won’t let them.”
“Leave me alone!”
“But you’re my friend.”
“Stop! You’re freaking me out. Go away!”
Stratton is a master of documenting the human condition and he has crafted that skill into this book. Any reader will learn to relate with Cameron and gain an understanding of his situation. A powerful and enlightening read no matter what the age of the reader may be.
Mom’s back at five. She calls me to the kitchen table. I sit like a prisoner waiting to be executed. Will it be the “I’m disappointed” speech or the “I love you” speech? I know she loves me. I know she’s disappointed. Why does she have to say it?
Mom reaches across the table and puts her hand on mine. “Cameron,” she says softly, “I want to apologize.”
What ? I stare down at our hands. Mom still wears her wedding ring. She says it’s to keep men away, but it reminds me of Dad. I wonder if it reminds her.
“I should never have said what I said yesterday, about a fight being the beginning.” Mom says. “You are not your father. You are you. And who you are is a good, kind, bright young man, who cares about people.”
My insides quiver. I’m not good. I’m not kind. I think mean thoughts about people. I go behind your back. I lie. I make things up. I’m a horrible person. I’m . . .
I wipe the corner of my eye. “It’s OK.”
Mom hands me a Kleenex. Somehow she always has a Kleenex. “I want you to know that what’s been happening with you, what you’ve been going through, isn’t your fault.”
Is this about me being picked on at school? Eating lunch alone in a bathroom stall? Did I say Jacky’s name in my sleep?
‘I don’t know exactly what’s going on in your head.” – what a relief – “but I see the signs. The nightmares. The talking to yourself.”
I want to crawl in a hole.
“It’s all right, Cameron, I understand.” You don’t. “It’s been like this ever since you were a child. Whenever you have a problem, you go off into your own world. I can be talking to you, others can, but it’s like you don’t hear us. Since the last move it’s gotten worse.”
The Dogs by Allan Stratton is an insightful read. While the protagonist is a complex and confused young man, Stratton writes his story with a style that is easy to follow. A great piece of literature.