Wednesday, December 19, 2012

To Dance with the White Dog by Terry Kay

The Gables Book Club wanted a relatively short and easy read for December's discussion. To Dance with the White Dog was the choice. It wasn't a happy read, but one that packed emotion and a need for reflection into it's pages. 

The reader is introduced to Sam Peek, who has just lost his wife, Cora, of  fifty-seven years. He has been recognized as an expert in pecan trees and still, even with his walker, tends to some of his trees each day. His daughters live close-by and check on him often, as does his former housekeeper, Neelie. Not long after Cora's death Sam begins to see a white dog around the house. Sam feeds the dog and soon the dog becomes a part of his lonely life. The only problem is that no one else can see the dog. 

One of the most comical scenes in this otherwise poignant book finds his daughters sneaking up to Sam's house in the middle of the night, complete with back face in order to see the dog. Finally, they say that they can see the dog, but the reader is never quite sure whether to believe them. 

Sam is nostalgic for his younger days and upon receiving an announcement of his high school reunion he makes plans to attend. He keeps the trip a secret from the children because he knows that they would not look fondly upon his traveling by himself. Sam doesn't have a driver's license. The white dog accompanies Sam and saves his life. 

The book was made into a film starring Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy - perfectly casted. The reader is treated to a narrative that is about relationships - between Sam and his children, his neighbors, his late wife, his devotion to his journal and facing the end of life, and most importantly,  the dog. It is left to those looking in on Sam to decide whether the dog is real. A good, sentimental read with a bit of supernatural tucked in.

Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard

James A. Garfield was President of the United States for a mere 200 days. Most Americans know that he was the victim of an assassin's bullet, but how many know that his death need not have happened and even that it was caused by the doctors who treated him. Candice Millard has written a most fascinating and intriguing account of the rise of Garfield, his selection as presidential nominee and his subsequent election. The preponderance of the book, however, is centered on the assassination attempt and the treatment Garfield endured for 80 days.

Garfield was the last of our presidents to be born in a log cabin. He lived in dire poverty, losing his father before he was two years old. His mother worked a farm and he worked diligently at his studies. After a brief try at nautical pursuit, he entered Western Reserve Eclectic Institute, which later became Hiram College. From there he went to and graduated from Williams College. He was an outstanding scholar and was an incredible classicist. He was also an accomplished debater. He returned to Ohio where he became and instructor and eventually the president of Western Reserve E.I. He served in the Ohio state senate, the Civil War, and, eventually, in the U.S. Senate. His rise to power and the respect he earned from his colleagues in the Senate is inspirational. As I read this, I longed for a politician today who would be as down-to-earth and honest as Garfield. At the 1880 Republican National Convention neither Grant, Sherman, or Blaine could muster a majority and Garfield became the compromise candidate.

Enter Charles Guiteau. Millard goes into great detail about this main who was a preacher, member of the Oneida Community, lawyer and really mentally unstable. He stalked Garfield until he gained the confidence of shooting him because he was not given a political appointment What ensued was one of the most abhorrent cases of medical treatment in recorded history. Despite the findings of Joseph Lister about antisepsis and germ theory, Garfield's doctor, Dr. Doctor William Bliss, did not heed the practices. He allowed the President to become more ill each day, but assured the press and the public that Garfield was on the mend. Even Alexander Graham Bell became involved in trying to assist in the treatment, but was denied access to refine his theories.

The chronicle of the the last days of Garfield's life is as compelling as it is mournful. Eventually, Garfield was moved to Elberon, New Jersey to take advantage of the sea air. It was to no avail and he died there on 19 September. Garfield was on his way to becoming one of our most effective presidents and to have his life cut so short by malpractice was despicable. Millard concludes her narrative with the fate of Guiteau and the succession of Chester Arthur to the Presidency. 

This book was engrossing; it's story read like fiction, but was powerfully real. Millard is an intense researcher, the book incredibly documented. She was just as engaging as a speaker - articulate and chock full of anecdotes. Her first book was River of Doubt, a narrative of Theodore Roosevelt's trip to the Amazon. It will be on my "to read" list shortly. She is currently working on a biography of Winston Churchill and his escape from a POW camp during the Boer War. I volunteer to be her research assistant!