Sunday, February 01, 2015

Phoebe's Way

20578826Phoebe's Way: a heartwarming tale of one dog's gift / Pamela Ditchoff
Toronto: ECW Press, c2104.
89 p.

(my review was first published in shorter form in my local paper, the Stratford Gazette)
January brings thoughts of passing time, of the way the year flies by in sudden jumps, from one month to the next. In Phoebe’s Way, author Pamela Ditchoff tackles the passage of time in two ways. 
The story is written from January to June, following the structure of a year and a half in Phoebe's life. Each brief chapter, set in a particular month, explores Phoebe’s work in a nursing home: she is a St. Johns Ambulance therapy dog. The residents of the nursing home have another sense of time altogether, as their memories mesh with their present existence.
Set in Nova Scotia, the story evokes the long lifetimes of teachers, fishermen, store owners, priests, and more. Phoebe has the uncanny gift of understanding (and relating to the reader) the memories that are arising in each person as they visit with her owner, whom she calls Myother. It's a compelling way to present all the many experiences and memories that have converged in the present person -- the elderly resident: often elders are perceived as 'old dears', are condescended to and undervalued as whole people, but this book puts the lie to that perception.
Some of these residents’ daily actions seem incomprehensible to others, but as the reader, getting a glimpse of the emotions and relationships of the past makes each character into a person to be cherished.
At 87 pages, with short, simple chapters, this is the kind of book that you could skim through very quickly. But you’ll want to slow down and savour each visit Phoebe makes, to read carefully between the lines, especially the opening lines of each chapter. Each begins with the same paragraph, like a poem that sets up Phoebe’s eager visit. But as the book progresses, small changes occur. Phoebe is the narrator, so we are reading from the dog’s point of view, noticing things that only this admittedly very sophisticated dog is sensing. She sees motives and longings that humans in the room miss. If you can adjust to the narrative voice and suspend your disbelief for the journey, you will appreciate what Ditchoff is trying to do with this story.
The only thing I don't like about this book is the cover -- I don't think it says anything at all about the story -- it doesn't mesh. Also, I would've left off the sappy subtitle, but maybe that's just me. I wish the book had more cover appeal, because I feel like it's getting missed by looking so sober and grim, when really it's more melancholy, with hits of  emotional sweetness.
It’s a bittersweet, small novel that will appeal to dog lovers, but also to those who appreciate a vision of life as a whole, of our memories as an inescapable part of our self. It would be a wonderful book to share with those who haven’t yet had a lot of experience with our elders; it illuminates the long history which has brought each person to their current state. It’s a book which encourages caring and connection, in their many and varying forms.

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Further Reading

For another tale of a dog who is facing the death of a human, try Paul Auster's Timbuktu. While the style is different, the story is told from the old dog's perspective, and concerns itself with issues of death and what lies beyond. 

If it's the doggish angle that you like, try Every Dog Has A Gift, by Rachel McPherson shares real-life stories of dogs who've been used in therapy programs. It's a heartwarming collection for fans of series like the "Chicken Soup" books

10 comments:

  1. This looks great.Thank you! (BTW, I agree about the cover.)

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    1. It was something different -- glad I came across it! I wish the cover expressed more of its spirit though.

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  2. Lovely review, Melwyk. Congratulations on having it published in your local newspaper! It sounds like a wonderful book that I'd also enjoy reading.

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    1. I think a lot of thoughtful readers would enjoy this. (and I've noticed people borrowing it from the library now, too, which is delightful!)

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  3. Melwyk, thank your for your thoughtful and insightful review. It is comforting and uplifting to know that a reader, especially a librarian, explored this novella to the fullest.
    All Best, Pamela

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    1. I did enjoy it and found that there was much more in it than its slim size suggests. Thank you!

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  4. Aww this sounds so sweet. I'll have to get a copy for my sister who owns a therapy dog herself.

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    1. It is. I think anyone who has a therapy dog would find this intriguing too.

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  5. Oh, this sounds like a must-have. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

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    1. It has a charm to it, and a rhythm that I think reflects the way life repeats itself, and moves in a round. It was much more interesting than I'd anticipated.

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Thanks for stopping by ~ I hope you will leave your comments and reflections to let me know what you think!