by Jim Kjelgaard
Another re-read from my childhood. I read quite a number of Kjelgaard\’s books, mostly dog stories, way back in the day. This one is sequel to Big Red, I don\’t have a copy of that so couldn\’t refresh my memory, but I recalled enough that I wasn\’t lost trying to piece together the backstory too much.
It\’s about a father and son team, Ross and Danny, who live in a mountain cabin somewhere in New York. They make their living hunting and trapping for fur, also occasionally guiding visitors to fishing spots. Nearby lives a rich man with a large estate who keeps bird dogs for show and competitions. Ross and Danny have a cherished Irish setter dog named Red who, as far as I could figure out, was mated with the rich man\’s dog Sheilah so now Ross and Danny are raising the puppies at their cabin. They want to prove to their employer what great dogs Irish setters are. But there are new men at the kennels, who have brought English setters, claiming these as superior dogs. They put one of the Irish setters and an English setter in a impromptu field trial. The English setter wins (although Danny thinks this is an error, having seen the Irish setter point some wild birds that nobody else saw). So Danny and Ross have to admit the English dog won the contest, and they move the Irish setters down to the kennels agreeing to work with the new man and learn his methods.
The focus of the story is actually Mike, one of the Irish setter puppies. He\’s the runt, and appears to have the least promise, being headstrong and reckless. Runs around causing trouble, only listens to commands when he wants to. The new men don\’t see him as worth working with, so he\’s left alone. But when they show their training methods to Danny and Ross, another of the young Irish setters is beaten with a leash and Danny and Ross are furious. They believe the dogs should work for a man out of love and loyalty, not fear of punishment. They quit on the spot and move to a cabin further up the mountain with only one dog, Red. The puppy Mike escapes the kennels and goes to the original cabin, but nobody\’s there. He hangs around for several days and then starts roaming the woods, pointing game birds by instinct but unable to catch any. Eventually he comes across Danny\’s trail and finds the men at the distant cabin.
The climax of the story comes when Danny takes Mike along on a day trip to check a new area for game animals. A storm comes up and they have to survive overnight in unexpected snowfall when Danny is injured by a falling tree branch. At one point a cougar stalks them, hoping to catch and kill the dog, but Mike keeps it at bay. (Danny never finds out what the dog was barking at). The whole experience has a profound experience on the young dog, who starts paying more attention to humans, realizing they can work together for mutual benefit. In the end, Mike participates in another trial against an English setter (the rich man wanting to give them another chance) and proves himself- his knowledge gained in the forest and his independent thinking show up the other dog with its more rigid training.
Really a lot of this story is about character, especially that of the dogs, how the men saw something promising in Mike but waited for him to mature instead of forcing him into obedience when he was young and wild. Some parts of the story are told from the dog\’s viewpoint, and those were my favorite sections to read. I don\’t know how much appeal this book would have for kids nowadays- I won\’t actually recommend it to my nine-year-old- she\’d probably be upset reading about how the men butchered a hog, shot at game birds, trapped weasels and foxes. But for the memories and the nice look at character building (in an animal), I enjoyed it myself.
Rating: 3/5 182 pages, 1951