By Emma Pearse. De Capo Press. $25.
It isn’t exactly a modern-day version of the 1938 classic, “Lassie Come Home,” but “Sophie” packs every bit of real-life drama with an absorbing Australian accent and a bit of refreshing good fortune to boot.
Imagine, for a minute, you and your significant other are cruising through the San Juan Islands with your beloved dog when you venture down to the lower deck calling it and you get no response. Panic ensues, you immediately turn the craft around and begin retracing your route, yelling frantically for the dog. Several hours later, you are forced to return to port, empty handed.
That’s the scenario that confronts Dave and Jan Griffith Oct. 25, 2008 when boating off primitive St. Bees Island, part of Australia’s South Cumberland Islands, when they discover their surrogate child, Sophie, a 3-year-old Australian cattle dog, is missing and undoubtedly leaped overboard into the predator-packed waters.
The author establishes, “Sophie took to boating with characteristic grace and seemed to complete the Griffiths’ vision of those empty-nesting days, paving their way towards retirement. ‘She never minded what she was doing, as long as she was with us,’ “ Dave Griffith says.
From the time Jan Griffith hits the man-overboard button, this tender, yet riveting volume moves fast forward, much of filled with speculation on how this hardy working dog manages to survive a five-month odyssey on land and sea. The emotional roller coaster takes you from the heights of ecstasy to the depths of despair, yet ends on a high note.
The author, Pearse, an Australian journalist, captures the human-animal bond through the recollections of the Griffith family, friends and residents of two undeveloped islands, on both of which domestic pets are forbidden, where Sophie seeks out food and water.
Family dynamics play a huge role in this story. As the Griffiths’ four grown children see the impact of Sophie’s loss on their parents, they are uncertain what to do. Finally, they fill that emptiness with a red (note that color, since the Griffiths would accept no other breed after all their blue heelers) puppy named Ruby from a litter of blue and red cattle dogs Pearse describes as a “force-of-nature dog, unfazed by reprimand and full of hope for fun times, all the time.”
Time has a tendency to heal wounds, but for the Griffiths, memories of Sophie linger – and even fester – as hope for a fairy-tale ending slowly dissipates.
Unknown to the couple, there are sightings in December of a skinny blue dog on wild, tropical Keswick Island, approximately five nautical miles from where Sophie went overboard two months earlier. Then, speculation has it, that Sophie swims to craggy, volcanic St. Bees Island via a 480-meter highly challenging passage that no human would consider swimming because of its imposing tidal action and predators.
Unlike Keswick, St. Bees offers Sophie the opportunity for fresh water and food. A phone call from a friend on Keswick, alerts Peter Berck, a 30-year St. Bees resident, to be on the lookout for the four-legged escape artist. It isn’t long before he spots the hungry animal. Days of hide-and-seek follow before Berck contacts park rangers, who attempt to trap the animal in a large metal cage.
Friends talk to friends in these remote areas, and through the channels acquaintances of the Griffiths hear about the planned trapping, contact the Griffiths, raising both a ray of hope and the prospect of mass disappointment the elusive dog could be Sophie.
Moving fast forward, the trapping is successful and the Griffiths are alerted the dog will be boated to their hometown, Mackay, on the eastern coast of Queensland, Australia, for what they are hoping will be a Hollywood-type homecoming. And yes, all ends well, with exclamations of “Sophie, Sophie Tucker” from the Griffiths upon setting eyes on their long, lost soul mate which is bouncing off the walls of the crate.
A remarkable and crisp narrative, “Sophie” nourishes as well as celebrates with a richly detailed mix of passion, inspiration and hope you won’t soon forget.