By Pen Farthing. Thomas Dunne Books. $24.99.
You can taste the dust in this war-torn country and feel the torment of the Royal Marine author as you accompany him through this gritty narrative of frustration and fantasy. Before you finish, it will stir every emotion imaginable, from anger to awe.
One day he’s in the trenches or on patrol through booby-trapped villages occupied by Taliban fighters, the next, he’s attempting to save the lives of beleaguered street dogs who have found their way to a desolate, mud-walled, desert compound called Now Zad in Helmand Province, the almost daily target of enemy mortars.
“One Dog” is all about survival, for Farthing and his fellow Royal Marines and for the dogs lucky enough to find him. Some come sans ears and tails, from their days in a dog-fighting ring, a hugely popular sport with rival clans. Keep in mind these were removed without anesthetic.
Farthing adds, “I try my best to respect and understand other cultures before I pass judgment, but when it comes to animal cruelty I get rattled.” More than once he risks life and limb to save one of these waifs.
The dogs come in all sizes, breeds and mixes, but no designer combos here. Some are long-haired, others short-coated, but all had two things in common: they are unkempt and unfed.
Farthing’s first rescue is an Alsatian-looking dog he saw in a dogfight a couple of days earlier. Somehow, it manages to find a compound storeroom which Farthing enters and is greeted by a low menacing growl. A few dog biscuits later both are enjoying a comfort zone of sorts.
Gradually, the two become “mates,” and this onetime fighting machine is given a name, Nowzad, becoming the first of almost two dozen eventual rescues for Farthing and two others who improvise a dog pound within the military compound.
An exasperated Farthing soon recognizes his kennel population is getting out of hand and that he must find a means of getting these dogs out of Now Zad before his six-month deployment ends. Here’s where his wife, Lisa, at home in Scotland, comes in. After many phone calls, she finds one animal-rescue operation, established by an American aid worker 300 miles away. The obstacles here are money and location. Farthing must find a driver and a vehicle willing to travel that distance through Taliban territory with 18 animals (two are eventually left behind). At times it seems like “Mission: Impossible,” but just before he is scheduled to be deployed home, a driver is found, willing to accept $400.
The vehicle is a van, and the driver insists that all animals be tied up in the back seats, since crates would signal to any intervening Taliban these animals are destined to Westerners. He initially refuses to accept Nowzad, the fighting dog, but Farthing insists he be included. To accommodate the driver’s concern, Farthing slips a strip of black masking tape around the dog’s muzzle, leaving it loose enough for him to breath and drink water, if offered.
Eventually he learns that three adult dogs and 13 puppies arrived safely at their destination. Two other adult animals either escaped or died en route. Every rescued animal housed at the base kennel has a name and a story, hence Farthing discerns from the descriptive e-mail the identity of the pair.
A month after arriving home, Farthing’s emotional roller coaster hits a new low, when he receives an e-mail that 11 of the puppies died from an outbreak of parvovirus. “I was gutted,” he says. “After all they had been through. I felt hopeless inside.”
But that roller coaster peaks weeks later, when Nowzad and Tali (short for Taliban), another Afghan rescue, are sent to the UK and placed in quarantine. You guessed it: Farthing and Lisa adopt the pair which joins their two dogs, Fizz Dog, a Rottweiler, and Beamer Boy, a springer spaniel.
In this emotionally charged read, Farthing captures the essence of everyday warfare and in the process details how teamwork and commitment of fellow Royal Marines and his wife save the lives of dogs most likely doomed to death.
“One Dog” is an engaging pick-me-up and a difficult put-down. Not only is it an impassioned homage to canine castoffs, but an inspiring lesson of one man’s hope and commitment amidst huge geographical and cultural challenges.
P.S. The author and his wife operate the Nowzad Dogs charity (www.nowzaddogs.co.uk), established to help relieve the suffering of animals in Afghanistan. By 2011, they are hoping the organization will be operating as a nonprofit in the U.S.