Jon Katz's new dog-centered novel, 'Rose in a Storm'

By Yvonne Zipp
Wednesday, October 6, 2010

ROSE IN A STORM

By Jon Katz

Villard. 217 pp. $24

Pop culture is full of loyal, dedicated dogs: Balto, Lassie, that St. Bernard who's always pulling people out of snowbanks. But they're all slackers next to Rose, a border collie with the heart of an elephant and the stamina of Sylvester Stallone. Rose wouldn't run for help if Timmy fell down a well -- she'd drag the kid out herself, perform CPR and have his clothes laundered and ironed before his parents knew anything was wrong.

In "Rose in a Storm," Jon Katz's first novel in a decade, we learn that Rose snubs petting hands and regards sheepdog trials as the province of dilettantes. She has such a strong work ethic that she would scorn Farmer Hoggett's praise to Babe, "That'll do, pig," as gross flattery. But Rose is about to get enough work for 30 border collies.

When the novel opens, a 100-year blizzard is closing in on the farm, and Rose is the only thing standing between the cows, the sheep, the chickens and an icy death. Oh, and a pack of coyotes is circling. The farm's prognosis was grim even before the snow started falling: Farmer Sam is suffering from depression after the death of his wife and is about to sell out.

Katz's many memoirs of life at his Bedlam Farm have a devoted following. I sobbed during the hospice parts of "Izzy & Lenore"; years later, all I have to do is recall the scene where a blind Alzheimer's patient smiles for the first time in months after Izzy noses his head under her hand, and I well up. But despite the dramatic setup of "Rose in a Storm" and Katz's long track record as a chronicler of dogs, this new novel has a curiously stoic tone. Rose doesn't have much of a sense of humor, and neither does the book.

Rose is, of course, modeled on Katz's own border collie of the same name, and fans will recognize other Bedlamites, such as a giant steer, a la Katz's Elvis. Katz notes that he interviewed animal behaviorists to make Rose's viewpoint as authentic as possible, and most of the novel hews strictly to what's going on in her mind. Unfortunately, the result is no "Story of Edgar Sawtelle," David Wroblewski's recent novel, which also had sections written from a dog's point of view.

This reader doesn't need convincing that all dogs go to heaven -- heck, if they can't make it in, who can? -- but Katz's occasional forays into doggie mysticism clash oddly with the matter-of-fact narration. At its heart, this slim novel is a love letter dedicated "to the real Rose," and it's probably best appreciated by dog lovers and Katz's most ardent fans. The rest of us should just reread his moving memoir "A Dog Year."

Zipp reviews books regularly for the Christian Science Monitor.


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