“Lassie Come-Home” by Eric Knight is a classic, and on our oldest daughter’s reading list this year. I guess everyone has heard of the story, more likely because of movies and TV series than because they read the book, but it truly is a novel worth your time.
The actual story line is quickly summed up: Loyal dog is sold but seeks to return home through 400 miles of rugged terrain and crowded cities alike. A similar story line is followed in another novel I strongly recommend for people who do not shy away from children’s books, namely “The Incredible Journey” by Sheila Burnford, but it is not the story line as such that makes the novels good novels, as can be seen by the way in which the plot can be commercialized or turned into nothing much more than comedy or a tearjerker. So, why would I go out of my way to recommend this book?
The main reason is, it is a rich book, rich like a good meal with many courses that you come away from satisfied but not over-stuffed. It touches on many topics that are great for pondering and discussion alike and yet elaborates on none of them to the point where nothing is left unsaid.
The setting is Yorkshire and the Scottish Highlands, and the human characters we meet speak the dialects of the regions, including the inevitable outsider nobody trusts because he sticks out like a sore thumb the moment he opens his mouth. We also meet those who deeply love their home, the hills and the moors, whose characters are shaped by the demands and beauties thereof, and those of the city who cherish the country folks’ opinions and attitudes.
Then there are selfish people and selfless ones to encounter, cruel people, kind people and blustery people, and we hear about their actions and thoughts in a variety of ways that is astonishing for a story of this kind. We read about complex relationships between father and son, mother and son, father and mother, grandfather and granddaughter, master and servant, couples having grown old together, authorities of various degrees with those under and over them, concerned watchers and by-passers and also those who delight in making things even more difficult for their fellow creatures than they already are. We meet shrewd people and honest people, cheats and greedy ones, happy companions and ruthless crooks, in a word, the whole range of people one can possibly put into one little 250-page book. They make the story colorful and give us lots to think about concerning human nature in general, and human behavior in particular.
As if this plethora of characters wasn’t enough already to fill the side-lines of a story, the novel also touches on various social, or socio-political problems, from the Industrial Revolution and the Great Depression with their impact on community and family life to country-city differences and environmental pollution, and on to very thoughtful and unsentimental references to WWI. In any and all of these cases, you get the distinct impression that the author is speaking from personal experience, which even a cursory look into his life will confirm, although you wouldn’t think it from his rather superficial Wikipedia entry, had you no read the book first. For me personally, the initial setting of the novel – an impoverished coal-miner community in Yorkshire – is just the environment our not-so-very-distant ancestors lived in on both sides of the Atlantic, and you can get a glimpse into what life would have been like for them, and how it would have formed them.
Last but not least, the novel presents a great deal of insight into the nature and temperament of one specific dog breed – the Collie. Obviously, the author owned and loved, and was loved by a collie, and her name in real life was Toots. In the novel, however, this name is given to a little mongrel who is the companion of a travelling peddler, acting in much the same way as the real-life collie Toots did for the author in his own travelling days. The dog Toots in the novel meets a tragic end just like the author’s mongrel did in real life, and thus this little side-story becomes a lasting memorial for the little mongrel, following The Bard’s line “so long lives this, and this gives life to thee”.
Now, this post is already much longer than what I usually write, and I still haven’t told you (or, if you will, given away) the development of the story, the most moving moments, the astonishing turn of events in the end which is remarkable on many levels, or the most impressive character lessons one can learn from both human and canine main characters. So give it a whirl. I doubt very much that you will regret it.