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The Mountaintop School for Dogs: A dog book like no other

The Mountaintop School for Dogs: A dog book like no other

When I was a little kid I used to think that living in the past went along with old age, based on the way my grandparents and others of their era referred to the same old events over and over again. Later I realized that people of all ages may do this. Whether perceived as good or bad, these events become their reference points, the standard against which they judge themselves and everyone and everything around them from then on.

Ellen Cooney’s The Mountaintop School for Dogs and other second chances (Boston New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2014, 289 pages, ISBN 978-0-544-232615-8) presents a cast of human and canine characters, all of whom experienced some past negative event that at least initially serves as their reference point. Unlike novels involving human-canine relationships that provide intimate, often gut-wrenching details associated with traumatic events to justify a character’s response, The Mountaintop School for Dogs asks us to forego that familiar literary tactic in favor of something far more intimate and in some ways unnerving. To achieve this, the author provides only the most essential details in a thought-provoking tale as stripped down as a bunkroom with only one bed made up, and as intelligent, elegant, and energy-efficient as a streetwise dog.

Readers see events primarily through the eyes of two people: overly self-contained 50-year-old Mrs. Auberchon and Evie, a 20-something former grad student and substance-abuser with a major case of arrested development. Mrs. Auberchon knows the Mountaintop School from the inside out as well as anyone who chooses not to share anything of herself could know a group of people with pasts they also prefer not to share for reasons we never know. She takes a hands- and heart-off approach to the dogs with equally shadowy pasts who wind up on at the Mountaintop School. But not quite. Even though she lives in the small inn at the bottom of the mountain while everyone but the occasional newbie lives and works at the much larger converted inn at the top, she nonetheless keeps tabs on the dogs. When assured of privacy, she retreats to her quarters where she transforms herself from inn-keeper into Sanctuary Warden via the magic of electronics and the Internet. In that role she becomes a disembodied voice emanating from a shelf who gives the mountaintop dogs quiet pep talks or  shape-up lectures as needed, and reads them books like Watership Down, Charlotte’s Web and The Hobbit.

Then there’s Evie who initially struck me as the epitome of the self-absorbed, mellow-dramatic clueless young woman from an affluent background who adopts two childhood events as her reference points for everything wrong in her life. First her parents divorced and then married others. Then her parents and stepparents didn’t believe her when she told them that she’d read Heidi when she was 5. In all honesty, the author describes Evie so well that at first I wasn’t sure I could stand her unless she experienced some kind of miraculous dog-induced transformation damn quick. But if she did, then this would turn out to be yet another romanticized tale of human salvation and redemption thanks to a dog, which I didn’t want either. Talk about reader angst!

Fortunately the same pitch-perfect pace and writing style that makes this book a page-turner soon convinced me that Evie is the new millennium’s Holden Caulfield. She lies as easily and behaves as egocentrically as a spoiled 5-year-old. Like the 5-year-old who shuts her eyes and thinks no one can see her, she’s so transparent I couldn’t help but love her.

In her application to the Mountaintop School Evie states that if she couldn’t be a dog-trainer she wanted to talk to aliens “professionally”, unmindful that she was admitting that she wanted to communicate with everyone instead of just herself. Her education and drug-rehab experience provide her with many of the tools she needs to solve her own problems, but she arrives at Mrs. Auberchon’s lacking the self-control and self-reinforcement necessary to do that. In her running list of vocabulary words related to dogs and their training that often reveal more about her than dogs, her definition of treats segues into a discussion of learning to get stars as a child. What would be the point of learning, she asks, if there were no stars? Later when she loses interest in a man she refers to only as Made Me Happy when he writes a haiku for her and asks her to write one for him, she starts giving herself little treats of cocaine as she corrects his papers for his writing classes. Evie doesn’t want to write or otherwise engage in any kind of introspection. She just wants to read what others write and critique it.

Either because she actually did read Heidi or desires to atone for the fact that she didn’t, Evie becomes a prodigious reader. Or maybe she just tells people she is and expects them to believe her. One never knows with Evie. She arrives at Mrs. Auberchon’s convinced she can persuade others that she knows a lot about dogs, thanks to all the training and other dog books buried in her new L.L. Bean backpack. That it doesn’t take long before she sneaks downstairs from her room to burn the books in Mrs. Auberchon’s woodstove further convinced me that this book was special.

Nothing at Mrs. Auberchon’s or the Mountaintop School fulfills Evie’s expectations regarding her visions of herself as a dog-trainer and rescuer of lost canine souls. According to her plan, she would begin her formal dog-training education and canine salvation immediately upon her arrival. Instead she remains with Mrs. Auberchon at the base of the mountain for several days where she remains relatively free to do whatever she wants. During this period she conclusively and sometimes hilariously proves her ignorance of canine behavior and real life in general to a variety of dogs, plus 15-year-old dog-trainer Giant George as well as the innkeeper.

This same process of unfulfilled expectations followed by unplanned and sometimes undesired periods of introspection and self-training continues for the most part following Evie’s arrival at the Mountaintop School. First she discovers that everything she read on the school’s website is as phony as she is. She knows nothing about its history and nobody volunteers any information, including the 4 women in their seventies who seem to run the place. When Evie asks one of them for the course textbooks so she can do some reading before her training begins, the woman replies, “It’s already started.”

In such a way, the book reminds readers or introduces them to a concept that anyone who hopes to make lasting changes in a dog or any living being must learn first: we can’t teach others to display qualities we lack ourselves. We can’t expect them to be unafraid if we’re afraid. We can’t expect them to control their urges to bite, flee, deny or repeat negative behaviors that worked for them in the past if we can’t control our impulses to lash out, run away or deny situations we don’t want to deal with, or keep using techniques that worked when we were younger or in a different place or under different circumstances. We can’t forgive or love others if we don’t forgive or love ourselves first. We can’t rescue another until we first rescue ourselves. And above all, we must learn that rescuing is the easy part. It’s what follows it that demands the most of us. In other words, this is a book about the on-going process of growing up.

The Mountaintop School for Dogs contains so many memorable moments I’m sure they’ll keep popping into my mind for years to come, making me laugh, making me remember the times when I had to learn and sometimes still have to learn those same painful lessons sometimes more than once, making me grateful to those who gave me the freedom to learn those lessons on my own. Above it will remind me yet again that we, dogs, and all living beings forever remain aliens to ourselves and each other in one way or another. There are things about them and ourselves that we will never know. It’s that uncertainty and imperfection, the unhappy as well as happy endings that makes reality real and worth living.

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