I thought that the title – My Life in Dog Years – was Gary Paulsen’s clever way of saying that this was an autobiography. And it was autobiographical. But instead of being directly about Mr. Paulsen, it is about his dogs – and each of the different years he spent in company with them.
He tells of the hilarious first time that he took his Great Dane, Caesar, for a walk and was dragged down across the neighborhood at about twenty miles per hour. He tells of the blackish mutt he named Snowball who was his constant companion as a child. He writes of Quincy, the moppish dog who leapt out of his car window and into the Dairy Queen drive-thru where he promptly consumed a sundae before being recaptured. And he tells of Cookie, the sled dog whose bravery and quick action saved his life.
In My Life in Dog Years, Mr. Paulsen blends stories of his own varied life with those of the dogs he has loved through the years.
These two were, I thought, the most hilarious incidents in the book. The first is about a huge Great Dane named Caesar.
Then there was the time I was playing “get the kitty” with him. Arnie [the cat] wasn’t there – usually he was off eating or trying to get married – and I would run around the house yelling at Caesar, “Get the kitty, get the kitty!” He would lope with me, jumping over furniture and knocking down tables (for obvious reasons I usually played this game only when my wife wasn’t there), and I would run and yell and yell until he was so excited he would tear around the house by himself. (I know, I know, but it must be remembered we had no television or other forms of home entertainment.) If it worked well enough I could go and pour a cup of coffee and drink it while Caesar kept galloping, looking for the mystery kitty.
On this one morning I had done it particularly well and he was crazy with excitement, running up and down the stairs, spraying spit (we often had gobbets on the ceilings when he shook his head), bounding through the air with great glee, and just then, at the height of his crazed romp, just then the front doorbell buzzed and without thinking I opened it to see a package-delivery man standing there with a box in his arms.
Caesar went over me, through the screen and into the guy at shoulder height. He didn’t bite, didn’t actually hurt the man at all. In fact when the man was down on his back Caesar licked his face – an experience which I think could be duplicated by sticking your head in a car wash – but the effects were the same as if he’d attacked. The package went up in the air and crashed to the ground with a sound of breaking crockery (it had been a family heirloom vase sent by an aunt – and had been would be the correct words). In a cloud of dog spit and dust the delivery man clawed his way free, ran back to the truck and was gone before I knew exactly what had happened. Soon after, we received a polite note saying that that particular company would no longer deliver packages to us. [pgs. 82-84]
: ) This next piece is about a ratty, nine-inch tall mutt named Quincy.
One particular bear was becoming a problem. It had been in the garden several times and although it ran when I fired warning shots it seemed to hesitate. I decided it would be good to watch it.
But when the problem bear came back I wasn’t there. I was in the kitchen and my wife was working in the garden. Quincy, as always, was by her side and she was on her hands and knees weeding when she heard a strange whoofing sound nearby and looked up to see the problem bear coming at her. There was no warning, no stance, no threat – it was down and moving toward her.
We had procedures. Do not make eye contact, get up, back away, and she did all these things. They did not work. It kept coming and was clearly going to attack, was attacking, when Quincy went for the bear like a fur-covered bullet.
It was a draw as to who was more astonished, the bear or my wife. Quincy launched himself from the ground, four-inch legs pumping, and caught the bear in the center of its chest. He grabbed a mouthful of fur and hung on, clinging like a burr. Surprised, the bear stopped and tried to bite at Quincy but the dog was in too close. The bear started scraping with its front paws and my wife chose that moment to use all the good luck from the rest of her life. She rushed in, grabbed Quincy, pulled him off the bear and ran for the house. For some reason – shock, perhaps – the bear did not follow her, and Quincy, miraculously, was not injured. Later, at the vet’s, we couldn’t find a scratch on him, nor any internal injuries. [pgs. 115-116]
Wasn’t that just darling of Quincy? I can’t get over the wife’s behavior!
In the first chapter, Mr. Paulsen records an incident in which his dog, Cookie, saves his life. He writes, “Everything that has happened in the last seventeen years – everything: Iditarods, published books, love, living, life – all of it, including this book, I owe to Cookie.” [pg. 7] He does not mention any gratitude towards God for orchestrating his survival.
Mr. Paulsen mentions on several occasions that his parents were drunks. This affects his life, because he must live in his basement to avoid confrontations with them and he spends all of his time at school, at work, or out in the woods. His jobs were often night jobs, and he was bullied by a gang of teenagers until he found his dog, Dirk. He says that “they did not have firearms – but many carried switchblade knives.” [pg. 40]
Mr. Paulsen says that one of his dogs is like “an extension of my mind.” [pg. 135]
He says that he watched cockfights and saw a puppy strangled when he was a child.
He also mentions that he and his dog Snowball “found a cave in the jungle full of Japanese bodies – skeletons – and boxes of Japanese money and swords, and rats almost as big as Snowball.” [pg. 14]
Mr. Paulsen says of collies, “You could talk of them and they would listen. I’d tell them my dreams, my problems, girls – endless talk of girls – as I sat there in the hot sun chewing on a straw, ruffling a dog’s ears and watching the combine rumble around the golden field.” [pg. 55]
Mr. Paulsen records one event saying that all he was wearing was a pair of boxer shorts.
Mr. Paulsen mentions an incident concerning Halloween.
God’s name is used in vain four times, ‘heck’ is used twice, and ‘damn’ is used once. He also records a particularly wild dog-walking incident in which his Great Dane takes off running and Mr. Paulsen “more or less dragged in back of him screaming obscenities and yelling at him to stop.” [pg. 78] He also says that a particular pet knew how to “make me utter a profanity.” [pg. 130] He also records a dialogue which has a colorful amount of dashes (if you get my meaning).
Conclusion. The actual stories in My Life in Dog Years were very enjoyable – they were alternatively hilarious, tragic, nostalgic, and heroic. But they are accompanied by a lot of baggage.
Review © 2013 Laura Verret