The Mountains Called

 Pet Travel Book Club

Destination: New Hampshire

 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 Atticusa 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.


 Mt.. Washington New Hampshire
Mt.. Washington New Hampshire

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.

Mt. .Washington from Bretton Woods
Mt. .Washington from Bretton Woods

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.”

Franconia Ridge Trail
Franconia Ridge Trail

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  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.


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About Edie Jarolim

Edie Jarolim, who has written extensively about travel, food, and pets, has reviewed books about pets and travel for A Traveler's Library. She is working on a memoir of her life as a travel writer called Getting Naked for Money: An Accidental Travel Writer Reveals All. Read more about it at her blog

20 thoughts on “The Mountains Called

  1. Great review. This sounds like a must read, especially because of the transformation in his life and the quotes. Nature is my greatest therapy and healer. I will also be following Amy’s quest for the best place to live. I don’t like extreme heat or cold, but I can’t afford to live in Hawaii or be a snowbird.

  2. I couldn’t agree more. You have captured the depth and beauty of “following atticus” exquisitely. It was almost as pleasurable to read your review as it was to read the book itself. Almost….

  3. I think Tom is a modern-day equivalent of the White Mountains painters. I have always loved the outdoors, but his description has brought them alive. I dream of having the same experience and sharing it with my beloved schnauzer Sadie. I borrowed the book and thoroughly enjoyed it, would love a copy of my own.

  4. This is a wonderful review! I am going to send the link to my friends because you have done a great job capturing the full essence of the book … something that I have had trouble putting into words.

  5. I’m still reading the book. I’ll get there. 🙂

    Funny thing about dogs and other animals. A love for pets can help people overlook their many differences in other areas. And I think that’s what happened here.

  6. Thanks so much for the comments. For those who get bogged down, no one will throw you out of the club if you slip ahead to p. 155 & Atticus ‘s battle with cataracts. But I really hope you’ll want to go back for the deeper story!

    1. Rebecca, as owner of A Travler’s Library, I want to welcome you and congratulate you on such a well-written review. How nice that so many people have felt moved to join the conversation!

      1. Thank you! One thing I rediscovered is that writing a review — let alone two reviews — really forces the reviewer to sit down and think about why he/she loved a book. And that means a deeper understanding and appreciation than just the warm fuzzies (good as those are!).

  7. I found your review of Following Atticus one of the best I have read.You expressed my feelings about the book that I couldn’t quite express. I found this book one of the best I have read in years. One of the few books I have read that had me crying and then laughing. I am not a hiker, but enjoyed reading about the mountains, but I could on a personal basis relate to all of it. Thank you for an excellent review on one of my favorite books.

  8. I had the honor of meeting Tom and Atticus before reading the book. Once I met them, I couldn’t wait to read it and finished it in 3 days. It is truly an inspiring and motivational story – whether you’re a dog person or not. You laugh, you cry and in the end, you want to go climb a mountain – physically or metaphorically. Being a dog person myself, I greatly admire their relationship and got quite a kick out of Tom’s attempts at “training” Atticus. Read the book – you won’t be disappointed!

  9. Sorry if this shows up as a duplicate comment but I think I might have ended up in your spam (that has been happening to me lately).

    I don’t necessarily feel like the book was written specifically for me but I do feel it shares our story with the world. I hike with two miniature Dachshunds and come up against “small dog” stereotypes all of the time. I feel like like this book is a public voice for what we do every day.

    I also feel it tells my story because I have always compared being close to nature to a religion. When I am out getting in touch with nature I feel like I am really getting in touch with myself and the pulse of life. I feel like all of the great things I have learned about myself, or all the “ah-ha” moments,have happened during some experience in nature.

  10. I admit – I too was bogged down in the “mountains section” of the book and have not yet successfully scaled them.

    Your question about the perfect place is interesting. My husband and I have been traveling full-time for more than a year and have found places that are good in summer (Portland, OR) and places that are good in winter (Austin, TX), but nowhere that we can’t stand to be away from. When spring breaks we’ll be heading to New England. Perhaps the White Mountains will call to us as well.

  11. First, I want to say how pleased I am with my “surrogate’s” review. Having spotted and started to read the book at my house, Rebecca proceeded to buy it and read it three times before I’d finished it, so I thought she’d be perfect — especially given her journalism background.

    As Rebecca know from our conversations, I’m one of those people who got bogged down in the section of the indistinguishable mountain hikes. I’m not sure I would have finished the book if I hadn’t been the one who proposed it for the book club. But I’m very glad I persevered. In the end, it was really inspirational.

  12. Beautifully written review, Rebecca!
    I love that you give the White Mountains such prominence as a formidable (in so many ways) character; Tom certainly recognizes these mountains as such. And very happy that you give a dignified nod to Max, as well as to Atticus. (I am fortunate to have met both during Tom’s strolls through Newburyport!)

    Thanks again for so deftly, sublimely, and “hauntingly” capturing Tom’s quest.


    Kathy Downey

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