When you picture them, you visualize a total mismatch for the 4,000 Footers (New Hampshire White Mountains peaks), all 48 of them. But each chapter leaves you shaking your head wondering how this 20-pound miniature schnauzer and his hiking partner, the 200-pound plus author, conquer their objective in challenging weather and topography.
Ryan, owner of a one-man staff newspaper, the Undertoad, in Newburyport, a city of 17,000 on the North Shore of Massachusetts, knows virtually everyone in town, from politicians to paupers, and tells their story, leaving townspeople anxious and aghast, yet eagerly awaiting delivery of the next issue.
Ryan, who is quite the wordsmith but admittedly not a journalist, describes Newburyport: “was not your typical city. It was Norman Rockwell meets Alfred Hitchcock. It was townies and newcomers, straights and gays. It was old Yankees and the Irish and the Greeks. It was city divided many times over.
“. . . The city was filled with characters and character. It had a history of fishing, then of shipbuilding and shipping, then of textile mills and shoe factories. . . . Through all its changes, the one constant in Newburyport was tough and tumble political scene. Politics was king and more often than not, dirty.”
To his advantage, Ryan is a newbie with no dirty laundry, which is critical when the town’s politicians and police force become your journalistic targets and you are viewed as a muckraker or reformer, depending on your company.
But something is missing in this bachelor’s life. But that void changes when a member of the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals sends out a harmless e-mail to everyone in her address book, detailing the specifics of Max, an older miniature schnauzer in need of a home. You can pretty well guess what follows.
Max quickly becomes known about town but health issues cut his life short, after making quite an impression on his owner, “During the time we spent together, he not only found a home, he also gave me one” and in the process opens the door for Atticus Maxwell Finch, a miniature schnauzer puppy, “to walk right through it.”
Atticus (Atti, for short) quickly emerges as the town character, the central figure in many of Ryan’s writings and his constant companion, to the point they become known as “Tom and Atticus.”
Atticus proceeds to change and challenge Ryan’s lifestyle and topography from small-town celebrities to the solitude of nearby mountain paths in summer and winter. Describing their hikes, Ryan says, “It was a communion between man and beast that didn’t differentiate between either. More important, it was a communion between two friends.”
Their adventures are packed with psychological turmoil and serious health issues and a town that rallies around them with fund-raisers, love and adoration.
But this pair is giving, too, pledging funds from their climbing travails for area charities. The lively and impassioned narrative captures the heart and soul of relationships from family to friends, but a special one continues to surface throughout and concludes on a special note in the closing pages.
“Following Atticus” is a compelling mix of simple and lyrical crafted in a vivid, cultural context. It connects powerfully with readers with its crisp wit, true grit and colorful mosaic of characters. In the process it beautifully captures the essence of the human-animal bond.