Intensely moving, without a hint of sentimentality, Let’s Take the Long Way Home — part memoir and part biography of a friendship — should be read and cherished by Bark readers. Gail Caldwell is a fiercely private, independent, talented writer (with a Pulitzer Prize for criticism) and a dog enthusiast. So, when a dog trainer commented that she reminded her of another Cambridge writer who also had a new puppy, and added that she should try to get together with her, Caldwell wisely heeded the advice. What followed was the making of a remarkable relationship with Caroline Knapp (author of Pack of Two), one based not only on personality similarities but on the trust each of them — both reserved women — placed in the other, allowing them to open up and choose to take the “long way home” together.
Be prepared for tears from the book’s opening, which starts with Knapp’s death and the observation that “grief is what tells you who you are alone,” to its end, which closes with the knowledge that “the universe insists that what is fixed is also finite.” But this isn’t a maudlin tale, nor is it overtly expository like many memoirs can be; rather, it is revelatory, joyous and inspiring. Caldwell expertly draws the reader into her story as a hard-driving feminist from Amarillo, Texas, who saw “drinking as an anesthetic for highstrung sensitivity and a lubricant for creativity,” then realized that surrendering her addiction was a “way to get back all your power.”
When Knapp enters her circle, Caldwell notes (reflecting on the first of their many long dog walks), “Even on that first afternoon we spent together — a four-hour walk through late-summer woods — I remember being moved by Caroline: It was a different response from simple affection or camaraderie. … I found it a weightless liberation to be with someone whose intensity seemed to match and sometimes surpass my own.” Both shared deep bonds with their dogs — Caldwell with Clementine, a Samoyed, Knapp with Lucille, a Shepherd mix — both had stopped drinking at age 33, and both had early health problems. They also traded sports passions — Caldwell’s for swimming and Knapp’s for rowing. But, “everything really started with the dogs.” The two women reveled in unlocking the mysteries of canine behavior and in the triumphs earned through polishing their training skills. Theirs was a tight, close friendship, the kind that calls to mind Polonius’s counsel to “grapple them [friends] to thy soul with hoops of steel.” Caldwell generously allows the reader into their most intimate moments, including when Knapp learned of the cancer diagnosis, her last months in the hospital, and the brief reprieve when Knapp married her long-time companion, Mark Morelli, with Lucille as their ring bearer and Caldwell as her “humble handler.”
On a personal note, I must share with you the jolt I felt when I read about Caroline in the hospital, telling Gail that the only assignment she hadn’t been able to finish was one I’d given her (“a dog lover’s magazine” in the book). Caroline was slated to contribute to our first anthology, Dog Is My Co-Pilot. I was thrilled when she offered to write an essay and eagerly awaited it; news of her death (which I learned of through a New York Times obituary) came the day her essay was due. As Caroline asks Gail, “What am I supposed to write about … the only thing worse than losing your dog is knowing that you won’t outlive her?”
As it is, with Caroline Knapp’s Pack of Two, and now with her best friend’s enthralling “pack of four” memoir, both their stories will endure, classics that outlive us all.