No one was surprised when the signs began appearing in Baldwin Park. For years people had been letting their dogs run free in the meadow to the west of the elementary school and no one had said much about it; but once an authorized off-leash ‘dog park’ was proposed and a petition presented to the Littlefield Board of Alderman, fierce arguments erupted over whose rights to the park should be upheld and the town broke into factions, those who loved dogs and those who did not, at least not in the park.
Suzanne Berne uses the residents of Littlefield’s views of dogs and actions towards them – from producing ‘Leash Your Beast’ signs to poisoning – to explore a middle class American community; their lives, their desires and their concerns.
The novel focuses on the Downing family – Margaret and Bill and their daughter, Julia. Bill works for a finance company; Margaret, a former teacher, gave up her job to have a child, a child who arrived after several miscarriages. This has left Margaret in a permanent state of worrying:
…some imbalance in her that had become permanent, something unreasonable, morbid, a persistent boring dread. When Julia started middle school, he’d suggested Margaret find an outside interest, get a job, do volunteer work; she’d seemed almost frightened at the idea of leaving the house.
‘Well, wish me luck,’ she often said, even when heading to the store for milk. Thank God for that dog. At least it got her out of the door.
She was still Margaret. She loved him. He loved her.
But he couldn’t bear it.
At the beginning of the novel, two things happen that will spark change for the residents of Littlefield and Margaret, in particular. Firstly, Margaret finds a dead dog in the park – the first of those poisoned. The dog, a white bullmastiff, belongs to George Wechsler, a former high school teacher turned writer who’s recently separated from his wife. Secondly, the Downings get a new neighbour:
A small plump black woman met them at the door wearing a green turban, feathery pink mules and a peach-colored silk robe embroidered with dragons. It was two o’clock in the afternoon. She smiled broadly, revealing large front teeth with a gap between them, and introduced herself in a supple gravely voice as Clarice. Then she thanked them for the cookies and said that they’d have to excuse her, as she was just about to have her bath, thanked them again and shut the door. Margaret and Julia walked back through the hedge.
‘Well,’ Margaret says as they reached their back steps. ‘She seems interesting. I feel like I’ve met her before.’
‘She’s black,’ noted Julia.
But Julia wanted to know what if she wasn’t American or African? What she should be called then?
Margaret opened the back door to the kitchen. ‘I suppose you’d say person of color.’
‘But who says that?’ Julia loitered in the doorway, voice rising. ‘Who says, “Hey, guess what, today I met a person of color”?’
‘Let’s talk about this inside,’ said her mother.
Dr Clarice Watkins is an assistant professor at the University of Chicago, in Littlefield to study the ‘good quality of life’ after the town was listed in the Wall Street Journal as one of the ‘Twenty Best Places to Live in America’.
The Dogs of Littlefield turns the concerns of the middle classes into something quite humourous. We recognise that their worries and attempts to maintain the status quo are petty and ridiculous against the backdrop of current world events. Berne creates characters who we can empathise with over issues that affect us all – death, divorce, loneliness – so those moments when the characters are completely self-absorbed and out of touch with their privilege stand out (or at least I hope they do, otherwise we are in trouble).
This is a really enjoyable novel, although deliberately cringe worthy at points. It’s Anne Tyler with a serrated edge.