Prepare for tears

Red Dog
by Louis de Bernières

This is the sweetest most wonderful book I have read in some time. I think it’s sort-of aimed at children, at least I hope it is else I will have to have criticisms about some of the slightly condescending explanations and I don’t want to criticise such a lovely lovely book.

The best summary of this book is the one supplied by the author himself:

“In early 1998 I went to Perth in Western Australia in order to attend the literature festival, and part of the arrangement was that I should go to Karratha to do their first ever literary dinner. Karratha is a mining town a long way further north. The landscape is extraordinary, being composed of vast heaps of dark red earth and rock poking out of the never-ending bush. I imagine that Mars must have a similar feel to it. I went exploring and discovered the bronze statue to Red Dog outside the town of Dampier. I felt straight away that I had to find out more about this splendid dog. A few months later I returned to Western Australia and spent two glorious weeks driving around collecting Red Dog stories and visiting the places that he knew, writing up the text as I went along. I hope my cat never finds out that I have written a story to celebrate the life of a dog.”

Red Dog was a Red Cloud kelpie, which is an Australian breed of sheepdog, and lived in the 1970s in and around Dampier, at that time mostly a mining town. De Bernières has lightly fictionalised his account but based it on those stories he collected and it does read like a collected folklore, though there is nothing unbelievable or magical about it. Red Dog was simply a dog who refused to be tied to one owner but somehow became everyone’s dog. As dogs go he had some quirky habits and he wasn’t above stealing his dinner but he was affectionate and loyal to those he befriended and in return most everyone he met considered him a friend. People would take it in turn to de-flea him or take him to the vet for shots and he would sit by their sick children’s bedsides or guide caravan-dwellers to the toilet block at night.

This is such a simple story but de Bernières tells it beautifully, describing the landscape and the weather and using the local dialect just enough to give a real flavour of the time and place. The book is illustrated by Alan Baker with basic but effective line drawings in red and black and they add a fairy-tale quality to the experience.

The only negative, and I really hesitate to say it, is that de Bernières does over-explain some details. It adds to the condescension that at the back of the book there is a “Glossary of Australianisms” which I didn’t find at all necessary, seeing as the few words I didn’t know were made completely clear by context. But as I said above, if this is intended as a children’s book I can forgive all of that.

I really would recommend that everyone read this heartwarming book but doglovers beware, you will need to have tissues handy – it’s the life story of a dog, how do you think it’s going to end?

First published in Great Britain in 2001 by Secker & Warburg.