Thursday, December 04, 2008

The Leanin' Dog by K.A. Nuzum

Fear keeps Dessa Dean tied to her home, a cabin in the snowy woods. It is 4 days before Christmas and she tries very hard to step off her front porch to meet her father who is coming home from a day of hunting and trapping. She wants to welcome him home and show him that she is ok now, but she is not ok. Try as she might, Dessa Dean's legs don't obey her any more. With an iron will she can make it to the edge of the porch, but no further. If she manages to kick one foot over the edge, her frostbitten ears begin to ache again, filling her from head to toe with the dreaded "losing-Mama ache." In the next moment, the world starts to spin and it comes crashing in on her. With a scream, she bolts and runs back into the safety of the cabin. It is always the same, day after day. Dessa Dean is so ashamed of herself for breaking down in front of her father. He just looks at her, not saying a word. How she longs for a smile on his face, a proud look, or a kind word.

One afternoon there is a scratching at the door. At first Dessa Dean is scared, then she is curious. She pushes against the door, which seems stuck. Finally she pushes it open and trips and falls on top of an injured dog. Her joy of meeting a dog in these snowy woodlands is short-lived --the dog takes off and hobbles out of sight. With all her heart, Dessa Dean tries many different ways to encourage the dog to come back: leaving the door to the cabin open, cooking some meat and placing it on the porch, and calling to the dog again and again. Several times she tries to get off the porch to follow the dog's footprints, but each time it is the same: her frostbitten ears begin the "aching process," which culminates in the world spinning and caving in on her.

The dog, however, does come back, and Dessa Dean starts an elaborate and creative taming and training program. Initially her father is upset about the arrival of the dog and having another mouth to feed during these lean winter days, but then he realizes that the injured dog is a blessing for Dessa Dean. They each need healing, and they find a way to help each other. The Leanin' Dog draws to a close on Christmas Day, with a beautiful description of an outdoor celebration where gifts are freely given and gratefully received. The newly formed family --a father, a daughter and a dog --is ready to begin a new life together.

This is a beautifully written story of a young girl growing up alone in a cabin surrounded by snowy woods. Her father expects her to take care of herself and the cabin as he tries to find food for them by hunting and trapping. He can't help her deal with the loss of her mother. When "Leanin' Dog" arrives, she is the one who can reach Dessa Dean's heart and help her heal again. Review by Trudy Walsh

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