I still recall the pleasure of a novel by Ellen Cooney I read nearly 10 years ago: A Private Hotel for Gentle Ladies (published in 2005, historical fiction/1900’s Boston). And, for some unknown reason, have yet to read Lambrusco, published a few years later (also historical fiction/1943 Italian Resistance movement), awaiting on my shelf (not much longer!). So, when I learned the author had written a new book about animal rescue, so different from these, I was excited to read it, especially since my family has rescued three beloved English Setters.
As any volunteer for any noble cause knows, the giver gets as much (or more) than the giving. The giver who touches your heart in THE MOUNTAINTOP SCHOOL FOR DOGS AND OTHER SECOND CHANCES is Evie, a 24-year-old broken soul whose soul-searching voice narrates this affecting story. Occasionally, she curses but mostly she comes to us sadly, pensively, in poignant prose.
We meet Evie the day she arrives at the “Sanctuary,” a “sprawling, rugged, stone and wood lodge built a hundred years ago as a ski resort,” now a dog rescue center. Its starry logo is a dog “tilted upward, head high, front paw lifted, like he was walking around in just air.” This “place of refuge” is the last stop for these dogs, saved by an underground “Network,” having failed everywhere else. Evie answered an ad she found on their website, paid fees for what she assumed was a traditional training school with classes, textbook, teachers, students. But the sanctuary that sits atop a snowy mountaintop in an unknown locale is anything but conventional. And Evie, who has never owned a dog, is the only trainee.
I’m guessing the novel is set in northern Maine, the state where the author lives, for there are clues beyond being snowbound: people attired in park ranger garb, elderly staff, and a rescue scene off the mountaintop to a neighborhood that’s a: “came-to-life picture of a perfect place in America to live.” Yet nothing is perfect here for the poor dog being rescued, one of the many thoughtful messages Cooney makes. This one: things are not what they seem to be.
At the base of the mountaintop is an inn, room and board included with Evie’s fees. Here she meets the innkeeper, Mrs. Auberchon, 50, another lost soul (less obvious) who is also “Warden of the Sanctuary,” which means she observes dogs upon arrival, communicating with them through “computers, cameras, speakers, mikes, magic.” The pros/cons of the solitary nature and value of technology in the lonely lives of these two loner characters is another message. While enough of Evie’s past is revealed over time to grasp why she’s a human stray, Mrs. Auberchon’s comes to light only at the tail end, along with a glimpse into the evolution and future of the twosome’s relationship. While there are other people in the story, volunteers and staff, it’s Giant George, the only other young person, a 15-year-old boy who perceives himself to be a Great Dane, who – aside from the dogs – contributes to the rescue of Evie. For that’s what this heartfelt tale is really about: Evie’s rescue. “Rescue,” Evie says, the “Best. Verb. Ever.”
Rescue is part of Evie’s alphabetic voice. Cooney has cleverly structured the novel as an A-Z glossary of dog-related vocabulary – details about breeds, traits, behaviors, training – reflective of Evie’s avid research. It’s delivered in down-to-earth prose, metaphors for human behavior and understanding. Dog/human terms include: Abandon, Adoption, Alpha (bullying), Appreciation, Bonding, Companion, Connection, Depression, Family, Fear, Forgiveness, Gains, Goals (“totally overrated”), Home, Loneliness, Losers, Obedience, Second Chances, Shelter (“a place you’re glad to be”), Rehab, Surrender, Treats, Trust, Victories. A few more examples show why Evie refuses to discuss her past, and hint at her healing:
Abuse: “Sometimes you don’t call it abuse even when it is happening to you … You just call it “my life.”
Gentle: “Good adjective. Good non-alpha thing to be. Good thing to aspire to, but not until you’re ready to stop being a softie, desperate to be liked and admired.”
Hope: “Can I have it?” – “Can I actually figure out what it actually is?”
Real: “You cannot be fake with dogs”
Truth: “The truth is there are moments when I am very, very peaceful.”
Of course, it would be remiss not to mention the important dogs in the story. They arrive with handwritten assessments of their condition, including prognoses for adoption, many poor: Shadow, a hound mix with a nasty infection from a choke collar; Hank, a Lab/Pitbull crazed by wooden objects; Josie, a small mix still biting at 8, who “wasn’t the only one in this room with memories needing erasing;” Tasha, a Rottweiler who needed an owner who could handle her intimidating size and strength;” Dapple, an underweight, withdrawn, overworked greyhound; and the “pitties,” whose foreboding arrival is anticipated by all, except unknowing Evie. They were trained for dogfighting. Yes, this practice still exists. In “many states,” Cooney chillingly points out, it’s “not a serious crime to abuse animals.”
When we’re introduced to Evie at the inn, she’s very anxious. When one of the dogs knocks her to the ground, the fall mirrors her life: a “pattern of being knocked to my feet.” She doesn’t even realize she’s being tested, that her training has begun. For days, she tries to figure out what’s going on, and is understandably upset when she overhears Mrs. Auberchon confiding to Mrs. Walzer, the baker of dog treats, Evie will never last the week. Little by little, Evie proves herself with the dogs. When she’s granted permission to go to the mountaintop, you feel the emotional significance of her acceptance: “The light in the windows had the mellow glow of candlelight, and for a few moments I was enchanted, as if I’d entered a Christmas card or a carol.”
On the mountaintop, she’s greeted by Boomer, an older Golden Retriever, whose golden heart cannot be overstated. Boomer may be aging but his “spirit was like a genie in a lamp, as alive as anything.” When Evie hugged Boomer: “It was the first time finding out what it’s like to be held in the arms of someone who has no arms … He was good at holding. He was doing a better job with me than I’d ever done with myself.”
As Evie works with the dogs, her conversations with them are not just reflections about them but herself. Her voice brightens when she speaks to little biting Josie: “You would not believe how much I get it that your will is a whole lot bigger than your body. I’m in awe of that. I mean, I know things like that.”
You can’t help but admire the way Cooney delicately sends us many wise messages, such as when Evie appraises the former ski lodge’s shabbiness on the outside, yet it still retains “personal dignity, the kind that only comes from inside.” Or when Evie appreciates how a dog can have a “heart twice the size of its body.” Cooney wants us to appreciate Evie as twice as powerful as she seems on the surface. Evie possesses an inner strength we ought to be a little in awe of.