Book Review: The Mountaintop School for Dogs and Other Second Chances, Ellen Cooney (2014)

August 6th, 2014 12:10 pm by Kelly Garbato

Sweet, But Sometimes Problematic

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review through Goodreads’ First Reads program.)

Evie. Female. Twenty-four. Petite in stature and preppy in appearance – yet surprisingly strong and resilient. Has low self esteem and abandonment issues due to a divorce in the home. Graduated from college with a degree in literature and an addiction to cocaine; dropped out of graduate school. Neat, organized, and motivated to learn. Can be a self-starter, if given the opportunity. Sometimes too quick to give up. Needs guidance and a sense of belonging.

Lucille. Female. Fifty. Divorced. Will only answer to “Mrs. Auberchon.” Prim, prickly, and slow to disclose personal information (or any information). Does not make friends easily, resulting in a self-perpetuating cycle of loneliness and alienation. When given a job, will take to it fastidiously. Needs a purpose and a nice, cozy role to retire into. Potentially aggressive, occasionally paranoid. Anxiety meds should be considered.

Like so many strays before her – both human and canine – Evie is adrift when she arrives at the Sanctuary. Fresh out of rehab (a little too fresh, some might say), Evie is searching for direction, guidance – a new purpose in life. Though she’s never been interested in dogs – never even been owned by a dog, in point o’ facts – she impulsively answers a dog training ad she spotted while browsing classifieds on the internet. (“Would you like to become a dog ?”) With a little finagling and fudging of the truth, her application is accepted – Evie is headed to the mountaintop school for dogs!

Upon Evie’s arrival, she’s temporarily waylaid at the inn at the base of the mountain. It’s here that her training begins – Evie just doesn’t know it yet. One by one she’s introduced to her future students: Josie, a nippy little lady who lost her longtime home to the new baby. Shadow, who spent most of his life on the end of the chain and is now training (somewhat unsuccessfully) to be a search and rescue dog. Hank, who doesn’t take kindly to wooden objects and can’t stop obsessively pacing back and forth, back and forth. Tasha, a chronically depressed and anxious Rottweiler who was dumped from a car.

Observing Evie’s progress with skepticism is the tight-lipped Mrs. Auberchon, who runs the inn and also serves as Warden. It’s her voice that dogs sequestered due to medical or behavioral issues hear at night, reading to them from story books mostly free of human characters. Even though she’s devoted much of her middle-aged life to the Sanctuary, Mrs. Auberchon hasn’t been up on the mountain – not once. That is, until an especially despondent and stubborn Scottish terrier named Dora forces her hand.

Mrs. Auberchon would be the last to admit it, but she’s just as lost and adrift as Evie. From need and circumstance, the two women form a tentative, unspoken connection – to each other, and to the Sanctuary that they’ve both come to call home.

Things that made me want to fall in love with The Mountaintop School for Dogs and Other Second Chances:

  • Ellen Cooney’s writing is captivating: rich, detailed, and beautiful, with just the right balance of humor, heartbreak, kindness, and righteous indignation. There’s a certain self-awareness to the story that’s both gentle and sometimes cringe-worthy. While I exist somewhere in the space between the two, I found that I was able to relate to both Evie and Mrs. Auberchon, in ways both expected and not.

    Cooney’s physical descriptions of the dogs are especially evocative; and her observations of the dogs’ inner lives are downright enchanting.

    For example, the story opens on a note that’s fit to warm any dog lover’s heart:

    “It was dusk on a winter day, and from high on the mountain came barking, drifting down above the snow like peals of a bell, one, two, three, four, more, just to say the light was leaving, but that was all right: here I am, I’m a dog, all is well.”

    I want to live on that mountain. Don’t you?

    And, in her DIY dog care encyclopedia, Evie makes the following entry:

    Loneliness. There is no worse loneliness than the loneliness of a dog who never was anything but lonely, because the loneliness is normal, like a heartbeat. Do you think it’s easy to go to the place inside a dog where the loneliness is, when you can’t even do it with yourself?”

    Cooney has a knack for making my heart hurt in all the right places. Or maybe it’s all those dogs.

    (I have five of my own rescue dogs: Peedee, Rennie, Jayne, Mags, and Finnick. It was seven for a brief stretch of time, but the oldest two – Ralphie and Kaylee – passed away last year. I also foster and live with one ex-stray cat. So yeah, I’m what you’d call a “dog person.” Or maybe an “animal person with an especially mushy spot for dogs.”)

  • The Sanctuary eschews the “Dog Whisperer” style of dog training, in which dogs are bullied and terrified into submission, in favor of a kind and compassionate (yet firm when need be) approach that’s tailored to each individual dog and his or her life experiences. I loved watching Evie and the sisters coax a depressed or hostile dog into lowering his defenses, if even for a moment.

    And when Shadow finally got his bark on? Or Alfie tore ass around the yard just because he wanted to? My heart damn near burst with happiness.

  • Likewise, the characters are uniformly against methods of training that cause pain or rely on punishment. Choke collars, shock collars (including those used in invisible fencing), the jerk method – all are interrogated and dismissed as cruel.
  • The Sanctuary is a no-kill shelter that only takes on the most hard luck cases. The dogs here have been abused, neglected, and exploited. They come from breeders, race tracks, and dog fighting operations. (In fact, the whole story unfolds against the backdrop of a pending pit bull rescue – what’s sure to be the worst of the worst.) They are aggressive, depressed, anxious, neurotic, even catatonic. Yet none of them are broken beyond hope. Just like humans, they are capable of redemption. And not merely capable, but deserving – for all of what was done to them, was done by humans; in many cases, humans they once loved and trusted.
  • Dora, Shadow, Hank, Josie, Tasha, Alfie, and Dapple – through these dogs, Cooney puts a face to just a few of the two to four million dogs (and cats!) who are killed in so-called animal “shelters” every year in the U.S. alone. If Cooney can persuade just one reader to adopt a rescue…well, it won’t change the world, but it will change that dog’s world. It’s a start.
  • The Sanctuary and its Network of volunteers sometimes engages illegal activities, many of which would be considered “terrorism” under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA). For example, after a tip from the adult children of Dapple’s owners, they liberate (“steal”) Dapple – but not before she can be forcibly impregnated yet again. After the angry couple kidnaps Dapple back (arguably assaulting one of the elderly sisters in the process), Evie and Giant George liberate her a second time, after which Dapple enters the underground Network and is placed in an anonymous home far, far away from her abusers.

    And this is far from the first (or most dicey) direct action taken by the Sanctuary: on previous rescues, volunteers have been shot at. On a larger scale, two of the wealthier volunteers bankrolled the rescue of dozens of pit bulls from a dogfighting operation; the rescue unfolds in such a way that it appears clandestine and possibly illegal.

    Despite the prevailing political climate, these illegal activities are portrayed in a positive light. As Natasha Lennard observed in a recent piece on the Green Scare (“With Two New Terror Indictments, The Green Scare Is Far From Over,” Vice News, 7/11/14), “I’ve never seen terrified property. I’ve never seen a window scream, nor a broken padlock cry. I don’t believe that vehicles feel pain, even when on fire; I have not seen fear in a handful of dust. It takes little more than an online glance to find evidence of animals in terror, however — although even the existence of this evidence is itself under threat.”

  • Language. Time and again, Cooney affirms the power of language to shape our thoughts and feelings. “Euthanasia” is just a nice way of saying “killing,” when it’s done in anything but the dog’s best interests (i.e., to end her suffering due to a terminal illness). “Most unsocialized” is a kind and hopeful way of referring to the most dangerous rescued pitties – whose previous owners won’t say that they were abused, but rather “conditioned.”

    (This is also why I was so disappointed that Cooney used the term “housebreaking” instead of “housetraining” – as if something in the dog, her will or very spirit maybe, needs to be broken before she can learn that peeing in the house is a no-no. Or as if dogs are objects to be “broken in,” like shoes or a new car.)

    Things that turned me off:

  • While the staff and volunteers at the Sanctuary have a bottomless well of compassion and respect for dogs, these considerations are not extended to other nonhuman animals. Nearly everyone can be seen consuming the dead and dismembered bodies of farmed animals, even though these animals are (mis)treated in much the manner as the dogs they dedicate their lives to rescuing. Cows, pigs, and chickens are forcibly impregnated, only to have their sons and daughters stolen from them shortly after birth – just like poor Dapple. Egg laying hens and pigs are confined to tiny crates, denied even the space to stretch their wings or turn around – again, just like Dapple and the pitties. When egg laying hens are “spent,” they are discarded like so much waste – just as under-performing fighting or racing dogs are discarded when they’re no longer considered profitable.

    To be fair, none of this came as a surprise. I’m an ethical vegan; most Americans are not. I’ve learned to compartmentalize and dissociate, at least when it comes to having my pop culture and enjoying it too. I was ready to gloss over the meaty meals which I was sure would be served at the animal “sanctuary.” And yet.

    Evie is a vegetarian. Of two months. And after just a few hours at the inn, she quickly folds, done in by (what else?) the smell of frying bacon. (Bacon is our Kryptonite, apparently.) She feels no qualms or regret after reverting to her omni ways, her growing affection for animals other than herself be damned.

    Evie’s alleged vegetarianism is not in away way related to the plot, and is never mentioned again. It’s such a throwaway detail that it rather feels like an intentional poke in the eye to those of us who follow a plant-based diet: nyah nyah nyah! Thanks, but no. We need greater representation, but not like this.

  • When Evie first arrives, the Sanctuary is preparing to send a litter of Huskies out into the world. They’re being adopted…by a sled dog school.

    Between this and Evie the lapsed vegetarian, I nearly abandoned The Mountaintop School for Dogs just twenty pages in.

    The life of a sled dog (especially those used for racing; and yes, the Iditarod is name dropped, and it an positive manner, at that) is a hard one: since teams of dogs consist of numerous animals, the dogs typically live in kennels, which house anywhere from 20 to 150 dogs. Dogs may be housed outdoors, either with their own house or tethered on a rope or chain. (See: Shadow.) If a dog is too weak or old to perform his job, he’s “culled.” Make no mistake: this is a business, not a home, and dogs are not treated like members of the family.

    If anything, this is the sort of situation that the Sanctuary would be rescuing dogs from – not placing them into. And while my concerns were kinda-sorta vindicated when Giant George finds Rocky, the runt of the litter, listed for adoption at an Alaskan pound, it’s too little, too late. The whole plot line had me scratching my head: these are puppies! Highly adoptable! No way the sisters would just give them to an animal exploiter.

  • During her probationary stay at the inn, Evie is introduced to some of the Sanctuary’s canine residents…without any human guidance or even supervision. Hank appears in the outdoor pen as if by magic. Likewise, Josie materializes on her bed. Each dog comes with a sheet of notes – which Evie doesn’t always see and read prior to interacting with said dog. Can you say “recipe for disaster”?

    I’m sure that this is meant to be cute and quirky, but pairing problem dogs with an untrained trainee just struck me as stupid and irresponsible – and unfair to all parties involved. Indeed, when Evie attempts to pet the hard-of-hearing Josie, she startles the dog so badly that Josie bites her on the wrist. Evie is fine, but in a different scenario she might not have been so lucky. And why scare these already-traumatized dogs unnecessarily, anyway?

    The Mountaintop School for Dogs is clearly meant for dog people; animal people, not so much. But if you can set the speciesism aside, it’s actually a touching and heartfelt story.

    Read from: the bottom of a dog pile.

    (This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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  • One Response to “Book Review: The Mountaintop School for Dogs and Other Second Chances, Ellen Cooney (2014)”

    1. 2014 Real Book Challenge: July Roundup » vegan daemon Says:

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