“The Dog Stays in the Picture,” by Susan Morse. Open Road. $16.99.
Our family, too, has been owned by a rescued greyhound, and there is nothing quite like it. Like the Morses, ours came to us off the track when she was about 3.
But if you’re looking for an earthy memoir about a dog and its family, this comes up a bit short. Lilly is the on again, off again focus for the author, who is in the midst of midlife changes with the children off to college and her actor husband, David, continually gone on set for an assortment of projects.
While the author embraces quiet time at home in Philadelphia, thinking “life after children was going to be magic,” she is still mourning the loss of the family’s Australian shepherd Arrow. It isn’t long, however, before she contracts greyhound fever after seeing neighbors walking them about and meeting a couple of ex-racers that are owned by friends.
After getting David onboard with her greyhound crusade, Susan begins a deep array of research on the breed before outfitting the house with equipment and toys before Lilly’s grand entrance, which Morse describes, “She landed, like a disoriented tiger-striped neutron bomb.”
Life with Lilly is a game changer for Morse, and somewhat the focus here. But the thrust of this memoir is family and the author’s continued efforts to get control of distant problems to Lilly’s continued separation-anxiety issues for two years.
Morse packs one anecdote after another into the mix but Lilly is the linchpin that keeps her focused in the empty house, on holidays when everyone returns home or on the occasions when David is back following months away filming.
At home, Morse describes resident cat Joey’s unhappiness with this newcomer; Lilly’s wariness of men; and her need to outwit this sudden Velcro dog when leaving the home for a few hours and hoping to find it the way she left it when she returns.
“I didn’t do my homework about common greyhound emotional quirks before taking her on,” she admits, “and it’s not David’s fault either. The fault is all mine.”
With Lilly’s vexing behavioral challenges around every corner, Susan suffers from health issues and a mix of diagnoses, leaving her wondering if taking on Lilly is too much. “I want so much for this to be Lilly’s Forever Home. One foot in front of the other.”
Finally, she receives a diagnosis or her own ailment (joint pain, muscle aches, confusion) – a tick-related co-infection usually found in dogs and not in humans. Add this to David’s severe allergies and sleep paralysis and you have all the ingredients for a “Morse ER” television series.
With the empty-nest syndrome, the author opts to dig into some family history, finding many Civil War links. So it only figures that she’d like to dig up some background on Lilly, too. “A rescue dog of any kind is an enigma,” she writes, “and with a racing greyhound you have the added mystery of the past career. The identification tattoos inside Lilly’s ear both fascinate and upset me, a disturbing reminder that Lilly was nothing but a commodity in the world she comes from.”
The fact Lilly lost the tip of her right ear and has a “cruel-looking scar on her front leg” strengthens her impetus to nail down the dog’s racing successes – or not. Fortunately, a greyhound-owning neighbor directs the author to a site where she is able to uncover Lilly’s racing stats, which show she ran uninterrupted for over two years, totally more than 100 starts with 15 wins.
Late in the volume, Lilly begins emerging from her shell and interacting with a neighborhood group of other greyhounds. And life gets even better in the household when she begins to bond with David when he returns home following a long absence.
This isn’t a dog book, rather a lively and flavorful family memoir packed with psychological turbulence, tough realism and a loving rescue dog always an arm’s length away.