Aug 25, 2007

Nop's Trials

by Donald McCaig

Nop's Trials was not at all what I expected. For some reason I had an image in my head of a story centered on sheepdog trials, or maybe how the dogs are trained. While there are descriptions of the trials, that is only a small part of the book. Nop, Lewis Burkholder's newest and promising border collie, is stolen on Christmas day by a pair of rednecks who keep dogs for bear hunting and dogfights. He is then sold to an unscrupulous dog owner (Burkholder's enemy), and begins a long terrifying journey. He passes through many different people's hands, suffering abuse from most of them. Told in conjunction with his trials is the story of life back home on the farm: Burkholder's depression and anger at loosing his dog, difficulties working the farm without a dog to handle the cattle and sheep, friction between Burkholder, his wife, daughter and son-in-law, and almost in the background is the Stink Dog, once a champion border collie but now rendered crippled by an accident.

I found the story intriguing, but sometimes McCaig's spare, concise writing style left something to be desired. Most of the time the writing well reflected the attitude of the land and its people: hardscrabble, down to earth and to the point. There were moments though when I felt like there were gaps between events, or I was missing part of the picture. Then there is the dog's language. In this book the animals speak to each other, but are not understood by humans. They address each other formally ("thee" and "thou") but in very basic, cropped sentences and with a paucity of vocabulary. Nop doesn't even have a word for "many" to describe a whole flock of sheep on the ranch as opposed to the three or four individuals in trials, even though he well knows the difference. Incongruously, at one moment of ultimate suffering, Nop suddenly waxes nearly eloquent on the subject of dogs' history with mankind, sourcing an ancestral memory. It just didn't seem to fit. I felt like the author could have let the dogs talk a little more competently, without loosing their simplicity.

I did love the insights into how these dogs work and think. Border collies are not at all like other dogs, and Nop is a very strong character. Burkholder himself is also quite stubborn and tenacious, and the surprising methods he uses to pursue his lost dog make a good page-turner. However, the examples of almost every kind of cruelty and abuse a dog can suffer could make Nop's Trials very disturbing to some readers.

Rating: 3/5                  329 pages, 1984

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