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Updated: September 3, 2013 12:54 IST

Dogs to the rescue

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Cover of The Soldier Dog: Loyal to the End
The Hindu Cover of The Soldier Dog: Loyal to the End

A story about the heroic work that dogs have done during World War I.

This book is not for the faint-hearted. Vivid descriptions of war, wounds and death make interesting reading for some and difficult for others. Military jargon, early 20 century language and setting — this book requires all the emotional and mental attention you can give it.

On the front

Soldier Dog: Loyal to the End by Sam Angus is set in war-torn England and France during World War I when even the life of a dog is not left unaffected by the gravity of war.

Fourteen-year-old Stanley grows up in the company of purebred hounds and horses, reared by his father, mother and brother. Unfortunately for his father, ‘Da as Stanley calls him, tragedy strikes one after the other — his wife passes away, all his 32 prized pure-blood horses are requisitioned by the War Office, his older son Tom joins the army and finally his last surviving dog — Rocket — runs away and comes back home pregnant. All these emotionally drain out the old man, leaving no love or compassion to spare, except anger, aimed at his youngest.

Constantly forced to face the wrath of his father for no fault of his, and pushed to the brink by his father’s threats to drown Rocket’s pup — Stanley’s favourite, he decides to join the army and go in search of his brother. Given his prior experience with handling dogs, Stanley is recruited as a dog handler. His role is to train dogs to command such loyalty that the dogs would traverse tough terrains and cross-fire to bring messages back to their master.

The death of his first messenger dog — Bones — in service, wounds him to a great extent that he considers quitting the army and giving up the search for his brother. That’s until a scarred and temperamental Pistol is thrust upon him. Half-heartedly Stanley takes up the assignment but is unable to understand why the dog takes an instant liking to him. Several battles, tense action and emotional drama later, the ending is thankfully a happy one.

The story is inspired by the British Messenger Dog Service established in 1917 and the life of war hero-dog Airedale Jack. The book suitably highlights the dogs’ favoured characteristics of fierce loyalty and innocence that forms the foundation of this elaborate novel; so much so that despite dotted with numerous characters, besides Stanley, it’s the dogs that stand out — Rocket, Bones and Pistol.

It is also surprising that despite the serious nature of the plot and situation, the author is able to retain Stanley’s innocence and outlook to life that is expected of a boy of 14. Subtle humour comes as a relief in this rather serious novel that offers an interesting insight into how wars were fought.

The Soldier Dog: Loyal to the End, Sam Angus, Pan Macmillan, Rs. 299

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