Saturday, August 16, 2008

Church of the Dog

Church of the Dog / Kaya McLaren
NY : Penguin, c2008.

Time to catch up on a couple of reviews from the week-before-last's "Weekly Geeks" theme. To answer a couple more questions about my unreviewed books, here at long last is my look at Church of the Dog.

Heather at Errant Dreams asks:
'The Church of the Dog'?!I've never heard of it, and I just have to know, what is it about, and what does the title refer to??

First, Heather, I'll let you know what the title refers to...

The main character, Mara O’Shaunessey, is a wanderer who finds herself washing up in a small Oregon town. In very short order she has adopted a pig and moved into a small shack behind the elderly Edith and Earl McRae's farmhouse. Mara is a free spirit, and a stained glass artist and a painter and an art is a big part of her life. To brighten up her shack she paints a beautiful mural on the outside walls of a husky dog she has been dreaming of. Shortly after this, that very dog appears and adopts her, or she him, depending on how you look at it. I think this reveals that there is a lot of New Age spirituality in this storyline, and thus the main character feels that her home, beautifully decorated and peacefully inhabited, is a spiritual haven of sorts. That feeling, added to the dog/spirit guide painted on the walls, is what the title is referring to.

The basic storyline follows Mara as she makes a home for herself in this town, and gets to know the McRaes. Her openess changes the lives of all those around her, as Edith becomes more daring, drinking wine and accompanying Mara on midnight stealth charity errands. Earl discovers one morning while shaving that there is a tumour on his neck, and it is cancer. Mara's presence allows him to realize that the important things in life are his relationships, so he spends his last weeks on earth rebuilding the romance with his wife; the marriage is of such length that they've been taking each other for granted. He also writes to his estranged grandson, begging him to come home from Alaska and reconcile. The grandson, Daniel, works as a fisherman in Alaska, but decides he will return; they have their chance to forgive one another, and Daniel stays on in the McCrae house.

The Good:
The cover is a wonderful image, drawing attention to the artistic elements of the story. From the opening, when Mara arrives in town during a 4H auction and buys a pig to save him from slaughter, I was entertained and curious to know what this person was going to do next. Edith and Earl were characters I'd have liked to know more about -- the novel was told in alternating voices and I wanted more of these two. The story pays attention to the small things in life that make it worth living, illuminating the value of everyday things and everyday routines. Some of the descriptions of the farm, the shack she's painting, and Earl's friends in town are lovely and amusing.

The Not-so-good:
An element of the story which I actually didn't much like at all was the character of Daniel. He is not fleshed out much as an individual; I wasn't sure what he was thinking or what made him into the character he was. There is a lot in the book about his group of housemates in Alaska, and I could have lived without them. They live in squalor -- they are proud of the fact that their house reeks, is filled with garbage, and marauding raccoons attack the piles of crap on the back porch. I'm not sure if she thought this description showed the anti-establishment, free spirited nature of his friends, or if (heaven forbid) it came from life, but it was actually quite disgusting. I was hoping Daniel would come home and distance himself from this group of slackers, but instead they follow him to Oregon.

And, there is a bit too much woo-woo in the book for me. Mara and Daniel share dreams; this is not presented in a 'magical realism' way, but in a very pragmatic, "well, I was in your dream last night" kind of way, and it creeped me out! Do I really want to believe that somebody can just pop in to my very private dream world without a by-your-leave? Ick.

Overall, I liked this novel as a fun summer read, but if you have any reservations about New Age spirituality you probably will find it a bit over the top. The character of Mara is a great one; she is artistic, gentle yet spunky, open hearted and inspiring. I'd have liked the book better without the Daniel subplot, but I know that he was a favourite of others who've read this, so read it for yourself and decide!

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