//by Jim Kjelgaard//published 1956//
So, as I mentioned the other day, I recently reread one of my childhood favorites by this author, Lion Hound. Many of Kjelgaard’s books were my companions when I was growing up, and I’ll probably be reading them all within the next month or so – Snow Dog, Haunt Fox, Wild Trek, Big Red, and more. (Not sure why Kjelgaard loves those two-word titles, but he does… and even his chapters reflect that – “Fred Haver,” “Puppy Stake,” “The Desert,” “High Country,” etc.)
However, despite my love for Kjelgaard’s work as a child, Desert Dog was one I had never read before. Apparently, my library didn’t own a copy. But I came across it on Paperback Swap the other day and ordered it. It was actually pretty fun to read a Kjelgaard book I hadn’t read when I was a kid. I own one other that I’ve never read, so I’ll get to that one, too.
But here’s the thing – while Desert Dog was a perfectly acceptable read, it didn’t really do a lot for me. It was a pretty solid 3/5. So the question is – was this just a more mediocre example of Kjelgaard’s works, or are my readings of his other books simply colored with my warm childhood memories?? Quite the mystery….
Desert Dog is about Tawny, a racing greyhound. At the beginning of the book, Tawny’s trainer, to whom Tawny is completely devoted, dies. Of course Tawny doesn’t really understand this, or the changes in his life because of Haver’s death. We meander through a couple of chapters of Tawny being confused, of Tawny running a race, and of Tawny’s owner getting ready to sell him to someone else. But when Tawny’s owner and the potential buyer go out to the desert to see Tawny run, something snaps in the dog, and he takes off. The rest of the book is about his adventures surviving – and even thriving – in the desert.
Kjelgaard is usually a bit vague about where his books take place. He sometimes makes up names rather than using real ones (I just finished reading Big Red, and apparently the Wintapi Wilderness isn’t a real place!?), so he doesn’t really tell us specifically where Tawny’s desert is – but it’s definitely in the States, so it’s presumably somewhere in the southwest. It’s a rugged terrain, but Tawny was bred for desert life, and he is able to survive where a lesser dog would not have.
I think that the reason that I didn’t enjoy Desert Dog as much as some of Kjelgaard’s other works is that the story wasn’t as cohesive. For instance, in Lion Hound, while it may be a bit corny, Buck is determined to track and kill the lion who killed his master. We also have the story of Johnny, who loves Buck, and loved Buck’s owner, and who wants to find and care for the dog. Many of Kjelgaard’s books follow a similar theme – intelligent dog striving for a goal of some kind + hardworking boy who loves dog + wilderness. But Desert Dog doesn’t have that type of story, mainly because Tawny doesn’t really have a story. He’s just sort of meandering about trying not to die, and even that isn’t too exciting because Kjelgaard stresses how the greyhound was built/bred for this type of life, so it comes naturally to him. Things pick up a bit when Tawny runs into the wild dog pack, though, so the last half/third of the book was more engaging, but still lacked the drive of some of Kjelgaard’s other books.
While Desert Dog will never be a favorite, it was still a decent read and a book that would definitely have appealed to my younger, dog-crazy self – a book that would be enjoyed by any other young dog lover out there.