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The Great Good Dog : NOP'S HOPE, By Donald McCaig (Crown: $20; 240 pp.) : DUMB-BELL OF BROOKFIELD, POCONO SHOT, AND OTHER GREAT DOG STORIES, By John Taintor Foote, illustrations by Gordon Allen (Lyons & Burford: $24.95; 336 pp.)

July 24, 1994|Vicki Hearne | Vicki Hearne's most recent book is "Animal Happiness" (HarperCollins)

The authors of these two books are separated by a couple of generations. John Taintor Foote was born in 1881; Donald McCaig nearly 60 years later--but they have a couple of things in common that should be noted at the outset. One is that both books believe in the great dog. The more than exemplary, uncanny heart and intelligence and drive for work that quite eclipse the mere cleverness and devotion celebrated in this century in stories about Lassie and Lad of Sunnybank Farm are at the heart of most of Foote's stories, and of "Nop's Hope." And both books acknowledge in different ways the authority of the great dog and the honor due him.

In Foote's stories, especially about setters, greatness is figured as uneclipsable; the great dog is never outfaced. In the first of the title stories, "Dumb-bell of Brookfield," the great setter Dumb-bell becomes, while hunting, lost in a snowstorm. Dumb-bell is not at this point a young dog, and he is hunting in an unfamiliar terrain, an old pine wood. As the storm strikes, driving his human companions indoors, he is on point, having scented a grouse. The storm rages, Dumb-bell grows weaker, but stays on point--and is found the next morning, frozen to death, but still on point. The grouse he is pointing is still there.

This is one figuration of genius, as of a courage and will that are immune to vicissitudes; I have known dogs who tempt you to think in this way. But in "Nop's Hope," things are otherwise, and it is therefore, in this beautiful and canny book, a more problematic matter to honor the great dog. The dog is Hope, a Border Collie, son of the great Nop (of McCaig's earlier wonderful sheep dog novel, "Nop's Trials.") His handler is 26-year-old Penny Burkholder. (In both of these books, a handler, or trainer, is someone who is in some ways the dog's master but as deeply the dog's servant, like a tennis coach or any teacher who is aware of the awesome possibilities of the activity.)

When we meet Penny, she is on the road, competing in sheep-dog trials. She is in a sense an allegorical figure, having no history besides her quest, which is to win, with Hope, the National Handlers' Trials, a kind of sheep-dog equivalent of the Olympics. She seems to be made all of absolutes. She is given to the adamantine, as when she says, not callously but passionately after a ewe has been killed in order to try to save her lamb: "It's a mother's job to die for their young. That's what mothers do. Mother won't die for her baby isn't worth a damm in this world or the next." When she says this we don't know that Penny's husband and small daughter have been killed in a truck wreck, nor that at least some of Penny's adamantine drive is a drive to forget, or at least not remember so much--"when I'm out in that trial field . . . I don't have to be me . . . and at night, when I lay down, I'm too tired to dream."

The wife of a farmer who sees Penny work a dog feels that "somehow she might have done something different, something cold and bright and beautiful." Penny's genius with the dogs is true genius, not a symptom. It shines throughout the book, but especially perhaps at that farmer's place, where Penny starts helping him with his farm dog Shep, and the farmer "heard Shep talk, clear as a bell. He wondered why he hadn't heard him before."

But to say this much about Penny's quest is to obscure the central and glorious presence of Hope. Hope talks in this book. I don't mean that Penny interprets his gestures, but rather that he is given dialogue. Sometimes the dialogue is clearly understood by Penny, as when she tells him about the awesome difficulties of the National Handler's trials, and he says he can do it--"If I am handled correctly." She says: "I'm not so bad!" He says: "Thy commands come late or too soon and thee (CQ?) fail to read thy sheep." At other times she isn't interested, as when he says, "I will guard thee from ghosts," and she tells him to lie down and stop padding around.

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