By Gary Paulsen
“Dogs know how to love better than people.”
– Paintings From the Cave
Sometimes even the best laid plans go awry. Especially when a monkey wrench gets thrown into the mix. Like when Mom and I plan our blogging calendar. (Well, one of us plans. The other snoozes. I’ll let you figure out who’s who.)
See, we were going to put together a collection of Best Gary Paulsen Books Ever. He’s an old favorite. When it comes to outdoor adventures or coming of age tales, no one does it better than Gary. He’s our bud. He’s also a dog lover. Need I say more?
So here Mom and I were, cruising along with our blogging calendar when Mom stumbled upon a Paulsen book she somehow missed: Paintings from the Cave.
Monkey Wrench Alert!
After finishing this extraordinary trio of gripping, poignant novellas, we knew they had to have a stand-alone post. Here’s why:
Gary Paulsen was one of those kids who “slipped through the cracks” – until dogs and art saved him. So the three main characters in each of these novellas – Man of the Iron Heads, Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Girl, and Erik’s Rules – are all troubled 12 year-olds from, shall we say “unstable home environments.” (Big euphemism there. Think Galactic.)
But art and dogs save them. Like this:
Man of the Iron Heads
In the first story, Jake, aka: “J,” is a young kid in the projects. Every day is a struggle to survive, dodging drug dealers, violence and worse at every corner. He has to keep moving. All day. Every day. Because as everyone in this drug-infested, high crime neighborhood learns early and well, “You stop moving, you’re dead.”
Trying to keep warm despite the “Eskimo” jacket he retrieved from a dumpster, J hides in a dark basement during winter. From a window he watches a man across the street sculpt heads from clay. J is fascinated but wary. When the man offers to buy J a pizza and pay him $10 every time he poses so the artist can sketch and then sculpt J’s head, J hesitantly agrees. He’s cold and hungry. Besides. His 15 year old friend Layla is pregnant and needs the food.
But when a hoodlum who runs the neighborhood and the local crime syndicate takes umbrage at something J did, it’s not just J’s life that’s in danger. It’s his future, too. Because if J stops, he’s dead.
Gritty and grim, this is a story that’s powerful as it is bleak. Superbly well-written.
Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Girl
“They (dogs) never hurt anyone and they know everything there is about love and all they want is to help us not be alone and scared. They never give up.” – Paintings From the Cave
This is one of the finest short stories/novellas we’ve ever read.
Full of passion and pathos, this is the story of a young girl, Jo. She doesn’t fit in. She lives in a trailer with parents who are drunk and negligent. To put it mildly. Her only escape is the woods. Until she rescues three dogs: Carter, Mike, and Betty,
Dogs Change Lives
The dogs change her life. They also change the life of Rose, Jo’s only friend. Rose is facing a life-threatening disease. The dogs seem to know. They’re also the only ones who seem to understand and accept both girls unconditionally. The dogs love and protect both girls, from the tips of their canine noses right down to their tails.
Heart-rending but hopeful, Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Girl is another memorable example of this master storyteller’s prodigious talent. We loved it!
Another story that packs a punch as only Gary Paulsen can, Erik’s Rules delivers a truck load of emotion in just ten short chapters.
Jamie and his older brother, Erik, live anywhere they can after fleeing the horror that was their mom’s place. Erik, age 15, steals a Toyota from one of his mom’s “boyfriends.” And the brothers are on their own.
Erik works three jobs. But they can never manage to save up enough money for an apartment. So the brothers sleep in the car when they can’t couch surf anywhere else.
Life is grim. And often hungry. Cold.
The Dog Park
While waiting for Erik to get off work one day, Jamie wanders over to the local dog park. Watching the dogs play is soothing. Peaceful. Joyous. These are all foreign emotions to Jamie. But he begins to sketch. A natural talent, Jamie captures not just the physical features of each dog, but its emotions and personality, too.
Jamie’s ability is soon noticed by Greg, a volunteer with the local dog shelter. Jamie is soon sketching pictures of dogs up for adoption, to help place them in their forever homes. (Like me! – Kimber! Hi, Mom!)
One Border collie draws Jamie’s notice. The dog has been dumped at the shelter because she’s elderly and has major health issues the owner can’t be bothered with. (What a *&%^@* Jerk! – Mom and Kimber, in unison. I want to bite him. But Mom says no. She will. – Kimber)
An Instant Bond
Meanwhile, Jamie has been visiting the library, reading history and historical fiction. His last title was a biography about Annie Oakley. Something about Annie’s early life strikes a chord with Jamie. When he finds the Border collie shivering and ill at the shelter, he does his best to care for her. An instant bond is formed. Christened “Annie Oakley,” the dog changes Jamie’s life in that special way that only dogs can.
I’d bring tissue ‘fize you.
Sometimes a monkey wrench in your plans is a good thing. In the case of Paintings From the Cave, it’s a great thing. Each story will reverberate long after the final page is read and the book is closed. So if you haven’t yet discovered Paintings From the Cave, now would be good.
Featured monkey image: Public Domain