By Susan Wilson. St. Martin’s Press. $24.99.
This celebration of life and second chances will resonate with anyone who has owned a special dog – and who hasn’t?
Justine Meade, a 43-year-old with Seattle ties, admits on the first page “there have only been a handful of people I have loved. No that’s an exaggeration. Two. Two whom I lost because of stupidity and selfishness. One was my son. The other was my dog.”
And through this 310-page invigorating novel, her total focus is on recovering Mack, her cherished Shetland sheepdog, that was kicked aside an interstate highway by a trucker acquaintance, Artie Schmidt, she trusted and paid $300 for a trip to New Bedford, Mass., to visit her dying father. But that poignant incident is triggered in part by Justine’s earlier selfishness of calling Artie’s bluff that he won’t leave a truck stop without her when she waits to shower. Well, he does, and Mack finds himself along for the ride.
When she comes out of the truck stop and finds Artie and Mack gone, Justine is frantic and sets in motion a never-ending Mack rescue mission that threads together family dynamics, new friendships and an endearing rescue couple.
“It doesn’t escape me,” says Justine, “that I am faced with making a choice. My desire to find my dog. My self-imposed obligation is to go to my (dying) father. In both situations, timing is going to be everything. I could abandon my journey to New Bedford and focus on finding Mack, except that I hold on to a childish hope that in showing up, facing my father, I might get an apology, an acknowledgement that what he did to me when I was 17 was wrong.”
The power of the human/animal bond is front and center around every turn, from a tormented Justine to Ed and Alice Parmalee who find Mack at the entrance to a cemetery, where their daughter Stacy is buried. It isn’t love at first sight, since they have passed the beleaguered dog several times for a day before taking pity on it.
Like Justine, the Parmalees are still reeling from a loss. Stacy died seven years ago. Eventually, they return and pick it up, slowly embracing it and naming it Buddy. And it isn’t long before Buddy becomes the centerpiece of their lives, bringing the couple closer together than at any point after Stacy’s death.
With the help of a network of old friends and a new one, Mitch, a one-legged Harley rider, who hears her “dognapping” story and takes her as far as Erie, Pa., en route to her father, she gains a sliver of hope. Mitch takes a liking to Justine and reconnects with her later, this time in a car, in New Bedford after her father dies.
Eventually, a livid Justine catches up with Artie and learns he dispatched Mack to the side of the road, which begins an entire new odyssey of finding the dog via all forms of media, from newspapers to Facebook and YouTube, the latter of which displays the image of a dog resembling Mack performing his signature dance moves that catches the attention of Ed Parmalee.
Wilson skillfully crafts a grand finale of polarized positions where the Parmalees, Justine and Mitch meet to determine Mack/Buddy’s future, as the attentive dog hangs on every word and body movement.
An emotional bumpy ride from cover to cover, “The Dog Who Danced” is spirited and simplified, sometimes hip deep in cynicism, yet always offering an earthy ray of hope.