But Dessa Dean’s mom died in the cold less than two months ago and Dessa Dean’s world has shrunk to her dad and her tiny cabin – she is newly terrified to step foot off the front porch and often suffers wrenching fits of terror that she is afraid mean she’s “daft.”
When a dog appears on the porch one day, there is something else – something warm and brown and furry – to fill her thoughts. The rest of the book is about Dessa Dean’s efforts to befriend this almost-wild dog, while at the same time she begins to come to terms with her mother’s death. Her father, who is away all day every day hunting and trapping, is a taciturn man who is so overwhelmed with his own grief that he doesn’t seem to know how to help Dessa Dean with hers – but the dog allows them to understand each other just a little bit better.
This is a focused book – it’s all about a girl, her grief, and a dog. It’s unclear when or where the book takes place, although the lack of modern amenities (and Dessa Dean’s failure to comment on this) seems to indicate that this might be the 1930s or earlier. Dessa Dean has a very old-fashioned way of talking, using words like “gladsome” and in general speaking, and occasionally acting, like a very old country woman. She cooks and cleans and does her spelling words and her math, and when she has been at the old iron stove all day, she sits down to rest her back. How old Dessa Dean actually is, is also never discovered. She doesn’t talk like a child and can seem both ridiculously naïve and unrealistically good and responsible.
Her love for the dog is the point, though, and it is portrayed with shining conviction. Rarely has there been a more expressive, dog-like dog – her very barks (“boof,” “ra!”) are perfectly rendered. This is a dog-lover’s book, pure and simple. Readers will be moved by Dessa Dean’s plight – her dead mother, her phobia – but it is the dog that will keep them reading to the end, mainly because her utter solid dogginess dispels any possible sentimentality. Thank goodness, because the combination of a dead mom and a miraculous dog could have been a recipe for disaster.
For readers who love books about making friends, especially the animal sort. Grades 4 – 6.