“The Dog Who Saved Me,” by Susan Wilson. St. Martin’s Press. $25.99
A dysfunctional family, a semi-feral yellow dog and a convoluted mix of characters in a small Massachusetts town add up to a rambling plot with several unexpected twists in the late going of this novel.
The central characters, Cooper Harrison and a Labrador retriever known as “yellow dog” throughout the story, both come with plenty of emotional baggage from past trauma.
Cooper, a former Boston K-9 officer, is left reeling from the loss of his best friend and partner, Argos, after a madman’s explosion. On PTSD leave following the incident, he decides to return to his small home town, Harmony Farms, and accept a job as an animal-control officer.
Yellow dog was shot intentionally by a local and continues to elude Coop despite his best efforts to capture him before the injured animal dies in the cold New England winter.
Add in the fragmented relationship between Cooper and Natalie, a former Wall Street stock trader who has experienced her own personal loss and is operating a horse rescue and rehabilitation operation in Harmony Falls, and you have all the elements of a solid melodrama.
After Coop eventually apprehends yellow dog and gets him needed veterinary care, he switches gears to finding the party who shot the beleaguered animal. Just when you think the obvious – and Coop does, too – yellow dog points him in a totally unexpected direction.
His familial relationships – very strained with his brother Jimmy, recently released from prison, and his father, Bull, an alcoholic – play a key role throughout the plot’s meandering pathway.
But the human-animal bond surfaces continually under author Wilson’s steady hand.
She writes, “I (Coop) wasn’t supposed to fall in love with Argo. By doing so, I was breaking tacit rules about being a K-9 handler. The dog was supposed to be a tool, like the firearm and the Mace and the handcuffs on my belt. But I did fall in love with him and his loss crushed me.”
That loss sent him back to the security blanket of Harmony Falls, where a mix master of story lines emerge, all of which are thwarted by one personal challenge after another. The common thread, however, is yellow dog.
Wilson’s most powerful prose is saved for the late stages, where the reader is left on the slippery slope of a cracking icy lake with an intoxicating blend of tension and passion. And in the middle of the mix is yellow dog’s heroics.
The emotional bumpy ride continues right into the Epilogue, where the plot moves forward with gusto while pivoting surprisingly in an uplifting fashion.
“The Dog Who Saved Me” is packed with psychological gymnastics and accented with plenty of tailwinds and headwinds to the flow. Serving up brief, punchy slices of life, it is not tear-jerking but reflects a tough realism throughout.