When I was ten, for Christmas I received a bundle of books. One was a collection of scary stories (which weren’t really scary), and a Little Women type novel and a few others which I can’t recall. Of them all, one left such an impact on me that it is the only I kept; Beautiful Joe, by (Margaret) Marshall Saunders. What shocked my whole way of thinking was that the story was written from the perspective of a dog.
Writers can do that?? I was astounded. I’d read stories with girls, boys, grown-ups, fairies, giants, etc. telling their tale, but a dog?
In the first sentences, Beautiful Joe confesses, “My name is Beautiful Joe, and I am a brown dog, of medium size. I am not beautiful, and I am not a thoroughbred. I am only a cur.” Of course at ten, I had to find out why he’s called beautiful when says he isn’t. Joe speaks of his early life with a cruel milkman named Jenkins (the book was written in 1893 when fresh milk was delivered every day to people’s homes). Jenkins was vicious and abusive, which lead to the death of Joe’s mother and siblings, and later abuse of Joe which was gruesome—but I couldn’t stop reading because I had to know how Joe’s story ended. The first person animal point of view took me on that journey with him. I saw through a dog’s eyes, felt with his heart, and learned when he did.
“Oh, how I hated (Jenkins) him!”
“It seemed very strange to have the boys pat me and call me “good dog.” No one had ever said such a thing to me before today.”
“I thought about my mother and wished she were here to lick my sore ears and soothe my pain.”
Many picture books are written from an animal’s point of view- this was the first that I’d seen it in a novel. And although we get Joe’s feelings and observations, he doesn’t don human clothing or aspects common to many of today’s books; he barks, he growls, he plays. Even with emotions and knowledge of human things, he remains a dog.
That was the style I wanted for my Evolution Revolution series. I didn’t want a squirrel conversing with a human, that would make the story, in my mind, a glorified picture book. I needed Jack the squirrel to remain a squirrel, and Fox to be a fox. Jack has to learn language, and he does it by watching and listening to humans. The only concession I made was that the different species could talk to each other. It would have been impossible to tell the story of Jack’s intellectual growth and how the animals learned and worked together without it. In Beautiful Joe, Saunders doesn’t even have dogs communicating with dogs. The species are silent to each other with the exception of natural growls, howls, and meows.
Another difference is that Joe comprehends emotions, words, things like freckles, and abstracts like human bewilderment, whereas Jack and the animals in my novel have to learn everything by observation. Again, this made the book much harder to write, but, I believe, kept it purer.
The binding is splitting and the pages are yellowing, but even above my collector’s leather edition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, this will always be my most treasured book; it opened my eyes, my imagination, and ultimately, my story.