Friday, September 9, 2011

Thurber's Josephine

I tend to avoid dog stories, and horse stories for that matter -- most end tragically. Lately there's been a scourge of horse stories that end well - Seabiscuit, although it was touch and go there for a while in his case,  triumphant Secretariat, and now there's a book about a little known horse named Snowman, who apparently inspired the nation, but I'm not too sure about that.

I had several collections of stories as a kid, dog stories, horse stories, animal stories - big dusty volumes - hand-me-downs from my mother's childhood library - and all of them left you devastated.  With the exception of The Black Stallion, I was hard pressed to find hope in any animal story I read. My grandmother took The Red Pony away from me one afternoon when she saw me delving into the first pages of it, "Don't read that, it's awful." I don't think she liked Steinbeck for a lot of reasons, but I think she genuinely hated him for writing that book. I never read it, but I watched the movie late one night, almost by mistake, I was terribly curious. Well, it was awful, my grandmother was right.

There was of course Lassie, the book and the completely unrelated TV show - I thought Timmie was pretty undeserving of such a fabulous dog, that kid made me feel brilliant in comparison.  I remember a picture book I had in first or second grade about a boy who finds a kitten in Harlem, that turned out very badly, and scarred me for quite some time - cat stories I never read because of that little book.

In our bizarre collection of records, my grandparents had a set of 45s called So Dear To My Heart - the audio story set for the famous Walt Disney movie. I listened to the scratchy records several times despite the storm scene which plunged you into deep terrifying darkness -- but I was obsessed with Dan Patch, the champion harness racer, and his brief appearance took my breath away every time I listened. But I had to steel myself for the storm and terrible middle of the story. It ends well, doesn’t it? I barely remember, but it was a hell of a way to get to a happy ending. I read all of C.W. Anderson’s Billy and Blaze stories, but they left me filled with anxiety - I was certain gypsies would steal my pony and sell him to all sorts of horrible characters.  To this day, I can’t really watch any movie with a dog or a horse in it, I’m fairly sure something terrible is going to happen to them - remember The Getaway with Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw? What do I obsess over when I watch that movie? The fate of all the animals left behind when the evil Rudy takes Sally Struthers and her pathetic veterinarian husband Harold as hostages - who cares if the people come out alive, it’s the animals I get all stressed over. Silly? I know . . .

And yet I’ve written a tragic dog story, and it’s here on the blog, but you know what you’re getting yourself into because of the title, Death of a Hound - I don’t want anyone to start reading it with the idea that he’s going to get out of the story alive. Why did I write a tragic dog story when I hate reading them so much? I don’t know, really, except, I had an idea, and was compelled to write it. Maybe it was some sort of strange catharsis? You tell me. But if you want the dog to live, don’t read it.

So it was with trepidation I purchased Everyman’s Pocket Classics Dog Stories on the day Irene blew through North Carolina. I was bored, the wind was howling, there was barely any rain, and so I drove myself to The Regulator Bookshop on Ninth Street in Durham. There were a few other brave souls out that day, it was a good day to be in a bookstore. I came home with a comforting stack of books: The Vision of Modern Dance - In the Words of Its Creators, Art & Fear - Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, Little Red Riding Hood (a gorgeous graphic novel by artist Daniel Egneus), and Dog Stories.

Well, here I am in the middle of my life, finally getting a clue, although, ten years from now that will be up for review again, I’m sure, and my faith in animal stories has been restored with James Thurber’s Josephine Has Her Day. Thurber has always had a hold on me, but I believe this might be one of his best stories. And while there is a bit of a scare somewhere in the middle, it’s a mild scare, and Thurber doesn’t manipulate your anxiety to a high level, he let’s you know that things are going to turn out right with a psychic pat on the shoulder as your reading about Josephine and her people, the Dickinsons.

“Did you see her?” She smiled wistfully.
“No,” said Dick, with a great effort at lightness. “But she’s doing fine, Timmons said.”
“I’m sure she is, ” said Mrs. Dickinson. “I’ve told Mrs. Timmons all about her idiosyncrasies. Well . . . I guess we must be getting back home. It looks a lot like rain.”
And it did rain, a slow, depressing drizzle, as they returned, Dick hard put to it to affect an easy cheerfulness while his mind turned over and over the quandry into which Josephine - and he - had fallen. Perhaps it might be an easy matter to buy her back for Timmons. But how was he to arrange a meeting without his wife’s knowing? Through his speculations ran alternately an undercurrent of exasperation at all this bother about an undesirable pup, a thin-lipped anger at the unknown brute’s action, and a faint feeling of dread.

Thurber’s story takes such a marvelous turn that you find yourself cheering in bed late at night while reading it, much to the consternation of your sleeping spouse and all the dogs under the blankets - Would you please? If only they knew what I was making such a fuss over they wouldn’t be so ill-tempered, shifting their weight and kicking me with their warm little feet.

I was so buoyed by Thurber’s story, that I have dared to read another story in the little book, O. Henry’s Memoir of a Yellow Dog - and without spoiling it, in fact it’s no spoil at all to say you can read it with full confidence that the dog will live happily ever after.

Next? I shall brave P.G. Wodehouse’s The Mixer - who said a girl can’t change?

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