As far back as I can remember, my parents owned a book called The Dogs of March (Ernest Hebert). When I was a kid, it fascinated me because the word “dogs” was in the title, but there was no picture of a dog on the cover, just a bleak winter landscape. The font was too tiny for me to read, and there were no pictures, so I put the book down and went back to Berenstain Bears or Henry and Mudge.
Fast forward 20-something years later, and I’ve moved out of my parents’ house. I’m unpacking books at the apartment, and there’s The Dogs of March, sitting inexplicably in my book pile. I guess I must have grabbed it without thinking. Likewise, without thinking, I put it on my bookshelf and didn’t think of it until I picked it up again pretty recently and thought, “Well, it might be time to finally read this.”
I’m glad I waited as long as I did to read it. If I had read it when I was a kid and somehow gotten to the end, it would have given me nightmares. That’s not to say it was a bad book. Absolutely the opposite. I would say that The Dogs of March was one of the better books I have read in the past few years, and now I understand why my parents kept it around.
The novel chronicles the life of Howard Elman, a poor, mostly illiterate everyman from rural New Hampshire. He’s got four daughters who pay him no mind, a son who’s gone to college and thinks he’s an intellectual, and a wife who is fascinated by the Roman Catholic religion. Howard has recently lost his job, and the rich lady who’s just moved in next door wants to buy his house and his land, on which he’s parked a bunch of old, rusty cars that he shoots at with his gun when he’s bored.
To be honest, there’s not much of a plot. The book is more of a slow-burning literary novel, and the “dogs of March” is a metaphor. Apparently, in the woods of New Hampshire in the winter, the neighborhood dogs run deer and get uncharacteristically vicious as they roam in a pack away from their owners. At some parts of the book, Howard is the dogs, and at other parts, he’s the deer.
The Dogs of March had its depressing moments. Actually, it was the literary equivalent of the most depressing song in the known universe: Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.” I swear, every time I hear that song while driving in my own car, I get so blinded by tears that I feel like smashing into a bridge abutment. But the book did make me consider the futility of some things in life. You can work hard and meet all the “adult” milestones but still be missing a lot, and life will go on around you after you’ve passed on.
The book ended nicely, perhaps a little too nicely for something that started out so dreary. I learned that it is actually the first in a series, but I’m not sure whether I want to read the others. Even so, I enjoyed The Dogs of March; the author managed to blend the funny parts of life with the realism and the notion that we’re all just human after all.