Will Shetterly, Dogland (Tor, 1997)

 

A former candidate for governor of Minnesota (unsuccessful), co-editor (with wife Emma Bull) of the Liavek series of books, Will Shetterly is also an author in his own right, with five previous novels under his belt. The best known of these are likely Elsewhere and Neverwhere, both set in the fantasy world Borderland. His sixth novel, Dogland, is equal parts coming of age story, history lesson and fantasy.

As a child, Shetterly apparently lived in the real Dogland, established, as was the one in the novel, in Florida. While there's a danger in assuming the book to be a fictionalized account of those years (ages four to ten for both Shetterly and four to eight for his protagonist and narrator, Mark Christopher Nix), I would hazard a guess that some of his childhood's triumphs and losses found their way into Shetterly's prose.

Despite the deceptively simple narrative plot -- a family struggling to get by, and three small children growing up in the rural South of the 1960s -- few things in this book are quite what they seem. For all that the story is rooted in the harsh reality of a turbulent historical period (desegregation, Cuba, the Cold War), magic never seems very far from Chris, even if he is too young to truly be aware of it. For example, each of the three Nix children were born under odd circumstances: a drunken man in the Mexican hospital waiting room claiming to be Chris' father, a flock of quail welcoming little sister Letitia Bette (Little Bit) into the world, and Digger's Mardi Gras entrance (smack dab in the middle of a parade, with a "green woman" and ësatyrí in attendance).

Then too there is the premise of Dogland: a tourist attraction featuring one hundred different breeds of dogs, many foreign and exotic, especially to insular 1960s Florida. Even though based on reality, such an attraction seems fantastical and somewhat quaint by today's standards.

Odder still are some of Dogland's visitors (aside from the average Floridian tourists) that Chris remembers -- among them, four cleverly disguised Norse gods and two travellers with a three-legged dog. Chris needn't even go further than his neighbors to find magic, though he never does make the connection between Ms. DeLyon and her Fountain of Youth hotel and springs, and the Lady of the Lake in the Arthurian tales his friend Mr. Drake tells him (let alone the connection to Ponce de Leon). Looming even larger and more ominously than anyone else is Mr. Nick Lumiere, who dresses all in white and possesses a literally fiendish entrepreneurial spirit.

These magical elements are woven seamlessly into the narrative fabric of Dogland. The story flows chronologically, beginning in 1959 and continuing to just before Kennedy's assassination in 1963, and is touched by an adult's hindsight knowledge of the greater world. Chris is aware only of his immediate world -- family, friends, Dogland's staff and dogs, and those who mean them either good or harm. Thus, the novel focuses on events close to Dogland, as seen through Chris' eyes.

Racism rears its ugly head on more than one occasion as a central theme in the book. Chris' father is anti-racist, employs a black family, and speaks his mind freely about desegregation, separation of religion and state and other hot-button topics. These stands elicit tolerance from some, hostile rebuttal from others in the form of confrontation, at times violent. Chris takes his cues from his father, very often out of a desire to make his father proud, and thus tumbles into his own set of troubles at school and with friends as he learns more of the outside world and attempts to make sense of it.

The book ends a bit abruptly after an odd, otherworldly encounter with Nick Lumiere and his followers, which results in the death of one main character, and the departure of two others. Good has triumphed over racism and evil, one is left to believe, but not without a sacrifice.

Overall, Shetterly has deftly combined recent history with a light touch of fantasy to create a realistic child narrator and an engaging story. Dogland is well worth a read.

 [April Gutierrez]