Monday, July 21, 2014
Book Review: Shiloh
By Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
Antheneum Books for Young Readers
Reviewed from e-book
Audience: Grades 4 to 8
Publication Date: September 30, 1991
While on a walk on his family's property, Marty comes across a sad-looking beagle dog. It's obvious that this dog has been out on his own for a while, and was previously hurt by his owner, so Marty lets the dog follow him home. But his dad knows this dog belongs to their neighbor Judd, and furthermore, they don't have the money to care for a dog. When Marty returns the dog, Judd is cruel to him and kicks him, and Marty decides if the dog runs away again, he won't bring him back. And that's just what happens. Now, Marty is keeping a secret from his parents and trying to keep the dog, Shiloh, safe and happy while figuring out a way to keep him out of Judd's hands. This is a touching story about one boy's love for a dog.
Shiloh is a classic story, having won the Newbery in 1992 and becoming a fixture in the dog cannon. I'd never read it, but felt compelled to because of my own beagle dog, Lucy. That might have been a mistake. Being the hormonal pregnant woman that I am, plus my love for my own beagle, I found the passages about animal cruelty hard to digest. It wasn't gratuitous but it was a little too much for me to handle. I can't imagine someone treating a dog that way, although I did grow up in a hunting community so I'm sure that my community was rife with this type of story. Luckily, there are two other books that follow Shiloh and Marty, so I knew that somehow it would work out in the end.
I think the biggest strength of this book is the setting, the hills of West Virginia which are beautiful but cruel. The people in this book have very little, as evidenced by Marty's family not being able to afford a dog. And while this book is over 20 years old, even at that time many families were more prosperous than Marty's family. It recalls a time and place where neighbors were more helpful, but also kept quiet about each other in a protective fashion, like not reporting someone to the game warden, again, something I can relate to from my own childhood. The dialogue is slow and measured, exactly how you would imagine it to be in a small, sleepy town, and there is a certain innocence in the setting despite the overall theme of animal cruelty.
But finally, Marty breaks through Judd's exterior as he is working to earn Shiloh. Judd did not have a good childhood and that, in part, explains why he is incapable of being kind to his dogs, or anyone really. Reader's will still hate Judd, but they at least have a reason why he is so cruel. He's rather like Gar-Face in The Underneath, a cruel human who has been made that way.
While this isn't a dead dog book, it's close. Hopefully most readers will be able to focus on the love that Marty and his family give to Shiloh and not the cruelty. It's a classic book for a reason and will still resonate with readers.