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Merle’s Door
Harcourt, 398 pp., 2008; $15

There have been a slew of dog biographies and canine/human-memoirs published lately—many falling into the “can you believe that my dog actually did that” subgenre. Just see what the unbridled success of Marley & Me has spawned! Publishers are, at long last, understanding the power that dogs, and good dog stories, have to sell books. The other thing that some of these books have in common is that they have been written by journalists, who know how to spin engaging stories. John Grogan, whose newspaper column previewed his Marley stories, becomes a bestselling author by compiling his columns into a book about a big, lovable, but oh-so-naughty Lab. The prolific Jon Katz, whose first dog book, A Dog Year, came out 2002, has expanded his title empire by publishing nearly a book a year, and has become a self-styled gentleman farmer and dog “expert.” Now, with the publication of Ted Kerasote’s Merle’s Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog, comes a much smarter and more compelling read, making it a welcome addition to the field.

Kerasote—author, journalist, outdoorsman and hunter—tells the story of his dog Merle, whom he found while on a kayaking trip in Utah. The large, red, amiable dog had apparently been living alone for some time, perhaps a reservation dog gone astray, before he met up with Kerasote and his fellow kayakers. The author interpreted the attention the dog directed to him to mean: “You need a dog, and I’m it.” Merle goes on to become the river trip’s mascot, which begins a 13-year journey of co-discovery for dog and man. 

From the opening pages of Merle’s Door, it is apparent that it has been written from a perspective and in a style different from that of other recent dog books—more aligned in its naturalistic narrative to Rick Bass’s masterwork, Colter: The True Story of the Best Dog I Ever Had, than to Grogan’s Marley or to Bark’s own Lee Harrington Rex stories. Perhaps because Kerasote has well-honed skills as a nature and adventure writer (see his award-winning book, Out There: In the Wild in a Wired Age), he is able to examine in great detail his relationship with Merle by adroitly weaving canine natural history and behavioral studies in with his dog’s memoir. This is the major strength of the book. And luckily, he looks to the works of leading experts, including those familiar to Bark readers—Patricia McConnell, Mark Derr and Marc Bekoff—to inform the trajectory of his views.

As for Merle, he really is an extraordinary dog, one whose early taste of an independent life is only enhanced by teaming up with his “man.” This pairing is made easier when Kerasote stumbles upon the idea that what his dog most needs is a door of his own (hence the book’s subtitle). So, instead of Merle being reliant on Kerasote for basic aspects of life, including when to relieve himself, he can make those decisions himself. Since they live in Kelly, Wyo., a mostly fenceless and open environment, Merle is able to take full of advantage of his freedom and the trust that Kerasote has in him. As the author notes, “The activities he enjoyed were unstructured and self-motivated—he was able to undertake them, break them off, and resume them according to his own schedule.” To explore his world, to make his own choices—certainly a life that would be the envy of most dogs (and controversial to some dog lovers)!

The author has a firm grasp of what was important in his dog’s life and how important this relationship becomes to the life of the author himself. This book, with its “I am my own dog” hero, establishes a new benchmark in the memoir field. Merle’s Door is a compelling, insightful and tender story that opens new doors into the understanding of the nature of dogs.

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 45: Nov/Dec 2007
Claudia Kawczynska is The Bark's co-founder and editor in chief. thebark.com

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