Monday, July 23, 2012

Out of the Mouths of Dogs: What the Dog Said by Randi Reisfeld

I wished I could grieve like a normal person, instead of feeling abandoned and--and guilty.

"Grace." Regan's voice rose over the chaos in the cages, echoing along the concrete hallway. "I think I found him! He's sooooo cute! He looks like a multi-poo!" she said. "That's what Sheena has!" Sheena Watson, queen of the high school jungle, Regan's cohort in fabulousness.

"No, no, no. Pick me!"

I spun around. In the cage behind me, a dog sat, posing as if for a portrait of canine good humor and fidelity. His shaggy gray muzzle seemed strained into something resembling a smile.

"Did you hear that?" I asked Regan.

"She didn't," the dog assured me. "You're the only one who can."

Since her police officer father's sudden death in a drive-by shooting, Grace has lost her anchor. Grace's grief is mixed with guilt, a relentless feeling that her insistence that her dad make her soccer tryouts that afternoon put him at work early and into the wrong place at the wrong moment. Now she is listeing to a pound dog and suspects she's losing her mind.

Grace, the smart one, the sister with straight As, has stopped turning in homework, stopped learning anything, stopped seeing her friends, lost in grief for the father who seemed to her the only one who understood her. Her mom throws herself into work and her books on grief management, and her sister Regan hasn't missed a beat with her friends and despite lackluster grades, is deep into scheming to get herself admitted to Parson's School of Design.

Enter Rex the rescue dog. Looking to pad her college application, Regan decides that she and Grace will adopt a shelter pooch and enroll it in the local canine companion program, becoming trainers to turn the pound puppy into a service dog for handicapped children. A born manipulator, Regan passes the actual training classes over to Grace, and Mom goes along with her lopsided plan, hoping that the dog and social involvement will draw Grace out of her self-imposed isolation.

But this rescue dog talks so that only Gracie can hear him, and what he says is making sense. Afraid to tell her family that she's having conversations with a goofy-looking mutt, Grace has no choice but to go with Regan's plan. Along the way, Grace is drawn in by Rex's infectious live-in-the-moment doggy wisdom and his amazing ability to psych out human motivations.

Rex's canine sensory equipment also come into play when Grace discovers that one of the teens in the class is JJ, the boy who may have been a witness to her father's unsolved murder, and to add to the mystery, she learns from the instructor that her own father was instrumental in getting JJ, identified as an at-risk kid because of his gang involvement, into the class. At first horrified by being forced together with someone she believes was involved in her dad's death, Grace gradually comes up with a plan, with the help of Rex's amazing abilities, to force JJ to reveal the shooter responsible for her father's shooting to the police.

Part fantasy pet tale, part mystery story, Randi Reisfeld's and H. B. Gilmour's What the Dog Said (Bloomsbury, 2012) is above all a story of one girl's grief. Grace slowly finds her way back to her own life, and with Rex's help, finds that bittersweet resolution that keeps her father a living part of that life. This funny-sad story rises above the humorous device of the talking dog story to become an insightful coming-of-age novel with appeal to a variety of young adult readers.

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