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Book Review
Sight Hound by Pam Houston
Review by: Kate Connick, January 2006

Pam Houston's Sight Hound isn't the type of book that I ordinarily take the time to read. It's not an informational book about dog behavior, training, health or care. It's a novel. But it was a Christmas gift, and it has a big ol' wolfhound butt on the cover, so I just had to read it. Much to my surprise and delight, I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

Houston's delivery might not work for every reader, but I found it effective and engaging. More character-driven than plot-driven, the book is written entirely in the first person but from the perspective of a dozen different characters. Each discusses him/herself and events as they intersect with the central figure - 40-year-old, Colorado playwright Rae Rutherford - and her terminally ill Irish wolfhound, Dante. The presentation works well to create a multidimensional view of people and events.

It strikes me that this isn't so much a story with a clear beginning, middle and end, as it is one that offers a protracted beginning that segues into possibilities. The dog dies, and yet there is no distinct closure. Rather, "this is the beginning of the beginning to understand" or the place "where one thing ends and another begins." I suppose some readers might prefer something more definitive, but I like the way in which matters of faith and personal growth are explored yet left somewhat unresolved. Rae isn't so much a different person as the book ends, as she is one continuing her journey. The same can be said of the other characters (including the deceased characters who, if one buys into the book's themes of reincarnation, never really cease to exist anyway).

One can read as much or as little into this book as they like. On its face, it is the simple story of a woman who loves her dog and loses him to cancer, in spite of a valiant effort to battle its progression. It is also a tale of personal growth and faith, of generosity of spirit, of embracing life, of focusing on what's real and not being deceived by words, of defining oneself rather than being defined by others, and of accepting that life's loss and sadness make the love and joy richer and more authentic. I feel so unbelievably corny writing this, but it doesn't come off that way in the novel. Houston never dips into the maudlin. Her writing is breezy yet potent, made entirely palatable by the humor and quirkiness in her observations.

Dogs are the great teachers in this book, something any dog lover would acknowledge with a grin. Rae imagines that "when a high Tibetan lama does a really good job at being a high Tibetan lama, he gets to come back as an Irish wolfhound." She holds the belief that, "If a person is living right, keeping their eyes open, the exact right dog will come to them, the dog that will teach them whatever set of lessons they need to learn right then." A "perfect being," Dante's mission in life is to teach Rae, through his unconditional love, that she is a worthy recipient. She needs to learn trust, faith, hope and forgiveness. She needs to learn to love herself, and to discover and accept human beings - a partner, as well as friends - who will love her.

Just as important, and inexorably connected, is Dante's (and every dog's) grounding in the present. Dante is able to get Rae to "give being a try," to slow down, to go to sleep, to find love and authenticity in the real world. She needs to cling less to words in her personal interactions and rely more on intuition, to realize, at least metaphorically, that "it's more important how (people) smell than what they say." It is no mistake that the first thing Rae comes to depend on in life is as simple as a big dog's happily thwacking tail. It is when Dante's chin rests on her shoulder that she feels safe, when he runs in an open meadow that she feels somehow closer to god, when he gazes at her she finally feels that she really exists. An ongoing theme is to embrace, experience, and revel in the present and to find faith and strength in the physical world that surrounds us. Dogs and nature help anchor human beings in this way.

Just as noble - and perhaps more amusing than Dante - is Rae's other wolfhound, Rose. A gleeful hedonist, Rose brings lessons of play, sensual pleasure, and joie de vivre. Rae's husband, Howard, shares Rose's simple, childlike approach to life. A classic line is Howard's profound comment about suicide, where he observes, "I can be sad enough to kill myself, really I can. But then I would think about whatever I was going to eat next, and that would pull me through the moment every time." It occurs to him that, "a good life is as simple as you let it be." Rose offers no apology for her happy childhood or simple, easy-to-please nature. Give her some frozen horse manure to eat, and she's a happy dog. Although both characters may appear to lack responsibility, ambition, and intelligence, both are grounded and reliable when needed. It is the unwillingness to fret over the past and the future that is the source of their strength and paradoxically, their depth.

Mary Ellen - the puppy that succeeds Dante - brings things full circle by reinforcing notions of hope, faith and renewal. Ultimately, Dante "wanted (Rae) to see that the only life worth living is a life full of love; that loss is always part of that equation; that love and loss conjoined are the best opportunity we ever get to live fully, to be our strongest, our most compassionate, our most graceful selves." Dante observes, "What would everything I've taught her add up to, if she didn't believe she could love, and love yet again?"

The characters are believable in their eccentricity and imperfection. Each reflects complexity, and the reader can probably identify elements of any of them in herself or those around. That being said, with the exception of the veterinary oncologist, I found the male characters less convincing than the female and animal characters.

This is a wonderful book - poignant, inspirational, engaging, and amusing. I'd read Houston again, if only for her excellent capacity for capturing the rhythms of thought and speech, as well as for her keen sense of humor. Read this book. Give it as a gift, and not only to the dog lovers in your life. Then again, it's possible that I'm shamelessly biased (as my wolfhoundy mix sits beside me with her violently thwacking tail).


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Sight Hound, by Pam Houston.
Published by W.W. Norton & Co., 2005. ISBN: 0393327396

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