“A Man of His Own,” by Susan Wilson. St. Martin’s Press. $24.99. (Publication date: Sept. 24.)em>
This one could have been named “Pax,” since the stalwart German Shepherd mix is the conduit via which all of the story angles in this hybrid of drama and sentiment flow.
Liquid smooth one moment and combustible the next, travels from the European war front in the early going back to the U.S. landscape where it all began, the compelling novel is literally all over the map. Pax experiences it all – family pet, war dog and therapy dog, beginning with Rick and Francesca Stanton and later Keller Nicholson in a 70-year time span (1938-2008).
In a nutshell, Wilson’s work begins in warm, fuzzy fashion with the promising Rick playing minor-league baseball and harboring ambitions of making it to the majors soon. Late in the season, he discovers an emaciated, scared part German shepherd puppy in a Boston alley that is about to change his entire life. A short time later Francesca, an Iowa farm girl, attends one of Stanton’s games. Once they cast eyes on each other, it’s love at first sight and soon they wed.
With the outbreak of World War II, Rick signs up for the Army and Francesca takes a factory job, where she sees an advertisement for War Dogs For Defense. Convinced it is the right thing, she volunteers Pax’s service.
At this point, the couple doesn’t know Keller, an orphan who resides in Hawke’s Cove, near Boston, but their paths eventually cross after Keller volunteers as a K-9 scout and is assigned Pax on the European warfront. One of the basic requirements in the War Dogs For Defense contract, however, is that the animal must be returned to the owners following the war, which creates all sorts of psychological conundrums here.
After Stanton is wounded in Italy, losing an arm and becoming paraplegic he faces long hospitalization stays in the U.S., but like thousands of other returning injured servicemen, the cerebral effects prove as devastating as the physical challenges.
Keller and Pax, too, both suffer injuries at the hands of the Nazis, but recover quickly. When Keller begrudgingly returns Pax to the Stantons, he finds the couple in need of assistance, creating a job for himself as Rick’s caretaker and a boatload of angst and temptation around Francesca.
“Pax has become a dog with purpose,” writes Wilson. “As much as living with Rick and Francesca had been rewarding, and comfortable, this life with Keller had hardened him into what his nature meant for him to be. A hunter. A guardian. A pack member with a job.”
While Pax is the centerpiece here, alternating his time between the self-pitying Rick and the ambitious Keller, this volume evolves into much more than a dog story. As the author pulls various deep-rooted strands together, everyone’s profound bond with Pax becomes glowingly apparent in this tightly wound narrative.
It is left for each to build a new life under one roof. Wilson describes the scenario: “This tripartite living has cast them all into mutable roles. Husband, patient, wife, friend, sister, brother, stranger, caregiver, war veteran, war hero, fool. The only immutable quality is their love Pax.”
Thanks to the dog, Rick bungles a drug-overdose suicide attempt, leading to quick hospitalization and recovery. This, however, becomes a sobering turning point in the trio’s tangled relationship, setting the stage for a surprise epilogue that puts a bow on this riveting package decades later.
With deft brushstrokes and an earthy delivery, Wilson develops strong characters caught together first hand and afar through years of confrontation and frustration. And through Pax, that bond and feisty spirit is magnified in a refreshing manner that connects powerfully to the reader.