Pet Travel Book Club
Book: Following Atticus: Eight Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship (September 2011) by Tom Ryan
CONTEST IS CLOSED. NOTE: This is the continuing book club run by Edie Jarolim of Will My Dog Hate me. Win a signed copy of Following Atticus by commenting here, OR at Will My Dog Hate Me. Comment both places and get two entries.
Review by Rebecca Boren
I wish I knew which wise person said that one mark of a wonderful book is that each reader feels it was written specifically to him or her. In the three months since its publication, Following Atticus, a love letter to New Hampshire’s White Mountains and the two miniature schnauzers who transformed author Tom Ryan’s life, has already achieved best-seller status, gaining such accolades as “lyrical”, “heartwarming,” and “entertaining and joyous.” It’s been dubbed an instant regional classic, a worthy follower in the footsteps of such New England literary giants as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson— whom Ryan loves to quote.
But I’m convinced Ryan wrote Following Atticus just for me.
- At the start of Following Atticus, Ryan is the owner, editor and sole employee of a muck-raking alternative newspaper in a small city on Massachusetts’ North Shore. I spent the first couple of decades of my working life shoveling dirt as a political and investigative reporter.
- I used to get away from it all by spending my vacations hiking or biking in the Swiss Alps or British countryside. Ryan learns about walking meditation while climbing New Hampshire’s White Mountains.
- Ryan falls more or less accidentally into life with an elderly rescued miniature schnauzer, then deliberately takes on the puppy who became Atticus Maxwell Finch. For years I saved miniature schnauzers for Arizona Schnauzer Rescue.
- Tom and Atticus’s breeder were both abused children. No further elaboration needed.
- And finally, when Ryan starts climbing mountains to raise money for charity, he hikes through the haze of pain, fatigue, and disability that comes with severe Lyme disease. As someone who daily frequently battles just to get out of bed courtesy of rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, I’m re-re-reading Following Atticus to see how he does that.
No wonder I love this book. Keep-by-my-bedside-and-give-inscribed –copies-to-everyone-on-my-Christmas-list love this book. It’s fun, it’s tender and frequently moving.
Following Atticus takes the classic literary form of the quest – both inner and outer. The hero, Tom Ryan — overworked, overweight, and overwhelmed at his newspaper — is saved from himself by those schnauzers. Atticus M. Finch, all 20 pounds of him, takes the role of faithful sidekick (only less a foolishly comic figure than many a Sancho Panza).
While Tom is controversial, even hated in certain circles, Atticus is loved from the moment he arrives in Newburyport as an 8-week-old 6-pound puppy. He covers meetings (and stays awake!) with Tom, wanders into the kitchen for treats at favorite restaurants, tours the city sitting in his special-order bicycle basket.
Within a couple of years, Atticus lures Tom away from the politics of Newburyport and into a world of long rural weekends, mountain hikes, and the rediscovery of the White Mountains, site of the family vacations that comprised Ryan’s few happy childhood memories.
In two successive winters between 2006 and 2008, the duo mounts a “Winter Quest” of climbing all 48 of New Hampshire’s mountains higher than 4,000 feet – twice each winter — for charity. Supporters donated money for each peak, first for cancer, then veterinary, research.
Scaling the 96 peaks in one winter is grueling, daunting, and had only been done by a single other human climber. No dogs. (No worries, dog lovers. Tom takes elaborate measures to keep his best friend safe in the snow and ice.)
In tackling the mountains, though, Tom also tackles his greatest fears. In the cold, in the dark, exposed to the heights that terrify him, he confronts demons that have haunted him since his childhood of abuse and loss. “I’d decided to challenge myself and make myself stronger, to come face-to-face with who I was in those worst of elements and in an environment I’ve always feared, with the hope I’d emerge a bit different from when I went into it.”
It’s harder than he expected. Exposed on a freezing and gusty ridge, “I thought about how such weather can strip a man of hope and good sense and make him feel lonely and empty. I thought about how easy it would be to sit down and just stop moving through the wind and gloom…”
Then he looks ahead. “Little Atticus had taken the lead, strong gusts be damned, and was ducking his head and floppy ears into each gust, matching forward with a sideways catch – like John Wayne.”
Following Atticus’s third major character is New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Ryan pays tribute to these ancient peaks, which in the 19th century were the first wilderness to attract the attention and love of urban Americans. Hundreds of painters recorded the dramatic peaks and cliffs; major and minor authors recorded the history and lore of the ridges and valleys.
Tom fills a tiny rented cabin with the great New England existentialists, such as Emerson and Thoreau. In the service of his story, he quotes them, the poets Longfellow and Tennyson, the early environmental writers such as John Muir, even the mid-20th-century Christian apologists C.S. Lewis and Thomas Merton.
It’s a kind of writing that is romantic in the best, lower-case “r” sense, where a beloved subject and style meld seamlessly, where the reader thinks “Of course!” when Tom compares himself to Frodo Baggins, and Atticus to Baggins’ faithful Sam. He captures such familiar sights as a beautiful sunny fall day with New England’s foliage in full color as well as those most of us will never see, like the undercast of an approaching blizzard snaking along a valley underneath a frozen ridge.
A recurring question in the book is whether Atticus is the perfect dog. “He’s perfect for me,” Ryan replies.
Is Following Atticus a perfect book? Nah. It takes some perseverance to follow the accounts of all those cold and dark winter hikes on mountain after seemingly indistinguishable mountain (referring to the end-paper map of the 4,000-footers helps.)
But it turned out to be a perfect book for me.
Note from Edie: Before she moved to Tucson and became a freelance writer, Rebecca Boren was a senior editor atThe Seattle Weekly and chief political reporter at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. A former volunteer at Arizona Schnauzer Rescue, she rescued Frankie, the muse of Will My Dog Hate Me. There we will discussing the book as it relates to the role of Atticus and his precursor mini-schnauzer, Max. I hope you’ll join us there too. But here at A Traveler’s Library, let’s talk about these questions:
Tom and his “Little Buddha?” find peace and wonder in the White Mountains, so much so that Tom eventually sells his newspaper so they can move to New Hampshire. Have you ever found a place that special to you?
Tom writes about the town of Newburyport, Massachusetts as a community divided against itself in every way imaginable – along lines of class, newcomer versus old-timer, gay versus straight, development versus historic preservation. Given that Tom was a controversial figure in “Cannibal City” why do you suppose so many people welcomed Maxwell Garrison Gillis, then Atticus Maxwell Finch, with such love and enthusiasm?
Tom has said that he wants to be the modern-day equivalent of the White Mountains painters, whose hundreds of works featuring the mountains brought tourists flocking to New Hampshire and contributed to the decision to rescue the mountains from clear-cut logging and the accompanying destruction. Does he succeed?
Disclaimers: The book cover is linked through Will My Dog Hate Me, an Amazon affiliate, which means that although it costs you no more to shop through that link, the affiliate earns a small percentage of anything you purchase. (And hey, it’s Christmas time, so go crazy!) Photos are used with permission from WikiCommons and from Flicker.com Please click on each photo to learn more about the origins.
Next month’s Pet Travel Book Club will discuss Dog Walks Man: A Six-Legged Odyssey by John Zeaman.
Click over to Will My Dog Hate Me for details, and a special deal from the publisher.