Nick Trout is not only a veterinary surgeon with Boston’s Angell Animal Medical Center, he’s also a highly regarded author. His new novel, The Wonder of Lost Causes, is the latest on a list that includes two fiction and three nonfiction books, including Tell Me Where It Hurts.
This new work is also his most personal, tapping as it does into a context with which he is intimately familiar: living with and caring for a child with a debilitating, life-threatening disease. His main character, a boy named Jasper, suffers from cystic fibrosis, a condition that also afflicts Trout’s daughter Emily. The disorder is one of the book’s throughlines; be prepared to learn how challenging and complicated it is to provide care for a CF child. Also, be prepared to be transported to a world where the love of and attachment to a dog can not only be lifeaffirming but also lifesaving.
The story is told in two alternating first-person voices. One belongs to Kate Blunt, Jasper’s mom, a hardworking single parent who is both a vet and the manager of an animal shelter in Cape Cod. Her life revolves around keeping the shelter out of the red, finding homes for its temporary canine residents and tending to the medical needs of her son. The other voice is Jasper’s, a precocious, self-aware, soccer-loving 11-year-old who is acutely aware of his chronic condition and the constraints it puts on his life, and on his mom’s life as well.
The book begins with a cleareyed look at Jasper’s condition: he’s “always hungry … Not for food. I’m always hungry for air.” At times, he feels that he’s “about to starve.” We also learn that he yearns for a dog of his own, a longing Kate nixes, mostly because of his health condition (which has entailed long hospital stays), but also because their rental doesn’t allow pets. To satisfy his longing, he devotes much of his after-school time to walking and keeping company with the dogs at the shelter.
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One afternoon while Jasper is at the shelter, a stray dog—heavily scarred, 100 pounds, mostly black, mixed breed—is brought into the shelter. And thus begins the story arc of this compelling and entertaining novel.
Jasper and Whistler, a name the boy intuits for the dog, make eye contact and have an immediate coup de foudre moment. It’s so intense that Kate thinks she witnessed the dog and her son “looking inside each other.” Jasper admits that he understands some dogs at some mysterious, deep level, a connection he is careful not to share with his mom. But with Whistler, he knows that this bond—his reading of the dog— goes deeper than any he has ever felt before. Whistler’s empathy for Jasper is equally profound and intense. The dog even has a cough that sounds very much like Jasper’s, so much so that Kate mistakes one for the other. We learn all of this by page 25.
Most of the rest of this delightful, insightful 400-plus page book is unique in the coming-of-age, Before I give away too much more of the story, I urge you to read The Wonder of Lost Causes to learn about Whistler’s gift, and to be transported by this love story between a special boy and a remarkable dog. Dr. Trout has created a sure winner—or as Anglophile Jasper would say, a “brilliant” book—one that deserves your attention.
This excerpt is in Jasper’s 11-year-old voice. Here he is musing about a shelter volunteer, who also is his best human friend.
… when it comes to dogs, Burt is really smart, notices everything about them, and never forgets. That’s why he knows so many neat tricks. Like how you hypnotize a dog by scratching in his armpits because it’s one of the few places on their body that’s impossible for them to reach. And how massaging a dog’s paws gets them used to playing with their feet, which makes it a whole lot easier when it’s time to clip their nails. I love it when Burt talks about dogs and how to read them. Burt’s eyes may be sad and brown and tangled in a spider web of wrinkles, but I reckon he’s lived my version of the perfect life—a life full of dogs. I’m pretty sure no person with CF has ever grown up to be as old as Burt. That’s why I always pay attention to people who have lived a long time and done lots of interesting stuff. When you have CF it makes sense. If I can’t get there myself, why not find out what it might have been like?