We recently talked with Robert Weintraub, author of No Better Friend, our favorite book of 2015. This remarkable story about Judy, the only canine POW of World War II, has won the praise of many critics, and was selected, too, by NPR’s Maureen Corrigan as one of last year’s best. This inspiring (and harrowing) story reminds us just how inimitable our bond is with dogs.
Q: No Better Friend is certainly an apt title for a book about an amazing dog and the intense bonds she shared with the people in her life. What made you decide on this title?
A: Well, in all honesty, the marketing department at Little, Brown went through a whole host of options before we settled on this. But No Better Friend, I thought, captured Judy’s incredible loyalty and unique comradeship with the servicemen, both before and during her imprisonment. She took the saw, “man’s best friend,” to a whole new level.
Q: What inspired you to write about this subject—not just Judy, but also, WWII POWs and the Pacific theater?
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A: Once I discovered Judy’s story, I knew I would have to capture the larger picture of her fellow prisoners, Frank Williams in particular. That led me to the fall of Singapore and the mad dash to Sumatra amid total Japanese domination in the South China Sea. Had Judy been in France, of course, I would have told that story, so in a sense, she took me to the Pacific. But despite their intense deprivations, the POWs of Sumatra have been largely ignored by history, so I was rather glad to be able to shine a light on a subsection of WWII that was more shadowy than others.
Q: You come from a sports journalism background—is there anything from that perspective that especially drew you to Judy’s story?
A: Certainly the qualities that draw people (including me) to sports—performance under duress, teamwork, strength of character—were fully on display in this story. The POWs, including (and especially) Judy, got one another through the worst possible times. They shared food despite not having enough for themselves. They put themselves in harm’s way to prevent fellow prisoners from taking beatings from the guards. They nursed one another through terrible disease and suffering. Judy and her fellow POWs rose above the nadir of humanity to display the best qualities humans have to offer. Obviously, the stakes were far higher than in any sporting contest, but the characteristics were similar, just writ large.
Q: It’s difficult to read about this period in history—about a war waged against a country that practiced extreme mistreatment of captives, unhindered by the Geneva convention. It makes stories about survivors like Judy and Frank Williams even more startling, and the details of what they, and many others, went through as POWs that much harder to digest. That must have been very challenging as you researched the topic.
A: I considered myself something of a buff on military history, WWII in particular, even before I began the research, but nothing prepares you for firsthand accounts of the brutality and shocking inhumanity of the camps. The legacy of the German concentration camps somewhat obscures the horrors in the Japanese camps, at least to the average person, so I thought it was important not to shy away from the terror tactics and sadistic barbarity practiced by the Japanese (and their Korean lackeys). In the course of writing, I found that any temptation I had to ease up on the worst of the offenses was offset by admiration for the POWs and Judy’s ability to withstand them. So my perspective tilted; I actually wanted to highlight the atrocities, for they presented Judy and her friend’s courage and endurance in greater relief.
Q: I tagged more pages in this book than in most that I review. Judy demonstrated so many instances of valor, intelligence, loyalty and, at times, cunning. Which ones stand out for you?
A: Yes, Judy made the exceptional look almost routine. Before she was even taken prisoner, she had several amazing episodes. At one point she took to guiding a small band of shipwreck survivors across the Sumatran interior in a quest for escape, through a deep rainforest thick with insects, mud and predators. Judy was actually slashed by a crocodile during this long march, but kept to her station as ranger, leading the group to (perceived) safety on the opposite coast.
There was the time when she was being transported by Japanese prison ship and the boat was sunk by a torpedo. She narrowly escaped, and once in the water, went about saving the lives of flailing shipmates instead of worrying for her own safety. In the camps, she repeatedly threw herself at guards in order to distract them from beating up fellow prisoners. One time she was shot and slightly wounded while thrusting herself between attacker and prey. Judy obviously put herself in grave danger during these episodes. But she continued to stand up for her fellow POWs right until liberation. Hers was truly a story not just of survival, but also of spirited resistance.
Q: What do you think made Judy so exceptional? As I read this book, I looked at my dogs and wondered what they would have done in the same circumstances. Do you have a dog?
A: We have young children, so we are waiting until they are a bit older before we get a dog of our own. But I grew up with a very loyal, very spirited Golden Retriever. Although he wasn’t nearly as intelligent as Judy, I like to think that he would have displayed the same courage and stamina. I don’t know that it’s possible to compare an average domestic canine with Judy, however. While she wasn’t a trained military dog, she was a mascot on a navy ship from a very young age, and was baptized to the sights and sounds (and smells!) of war, as well as death and destruction. Even before that, as a very young pup, she escaped from her kennel and survived on the streets of Shanghai for months before being brought home again. Clearly, this was a dog with something special inside her; an essential piece of her welcomed action and adventure, and when she faced the worst, she rose above it.
Q: What do you think it is about dogs that draws people like Frank Williams to the realization that, as you write, “His love for her was noble”?
A: Clearly, we recognized dogs’ special kinship with us at some point in their transition from wild animal to domesticated friend. In Frank’s case specifically, I was putting his love and loyalty to Judy in the context of his experience during the war. He was captured early on without putting up much of a fight (he was a radar technician in the Royal Air Force). After years of awful treatment in the camps, he had every reason to give up and let death take him, as so many other prisoners did. But Judy’s battling example shook him from his lethargy, and instilled in him the seed to fight on, survive each day, and put faith in a better time ahead. In exchange, he shared every bit of devotion he had with Judy, even risking his life to procure official POW status for her. In the worst situation imaginable, even worse than the war itself, Frank found the nobility that had eluded him while he was a free man. That was thanks to a dog—a special dog, true. But the qualities all dogs bring out in people is what makes our relationship with them so remarkable.
Q: I understand that a young readers’ version will be out soon. How did you recast the story to make it appropriate for that age group without diminishing its essence?
A: That version will be out on May 3, thank you for mentioning that! It was a difficult task to rework the narrative for younger readers, in part because I had never done it before, and in part because of the material. I had to walk a fine line between highlighting the inhumanity of the camps, which made Judy and Frank’s bond so special, without overplaying the brutality. I also found it necessary to trim much of the surrounding historical material in order to concentrate on the story at the heart of the book, the relationship between Judy and Frank. Not to worry, however; a series of sidebars provides historical context while not diverting the main narrative.
Q: What do you hope younger readers learn from your book?
A: I hope kids everywhere, including Asia (there is a Chinese edition), learn that love, loyalty and friendship are unconquerable, no matter how horrifying the surrounding conditions. And that while humans are forever finding ways to treat one another badly, the special relationships we have with dogs can transcend the often-shaky relationships we have with each other.