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Readers Advisory: Alfred Ollivant’s Bob, Son of Battle by Lydia Davis

NYR Children’s Collection, $17.95 hardbound, ISBN-10 1590177290, August 2014

Bob, Son of Battle, is a sheepdog so canny and careful of his flock, so deeply devoted to his master, James Moore, and so admired for his poise and wisdom by the residents of a small village in the rugged mountains of England’s North Country, that young though he is, he is already known as Owd Bob. In a recent contest, Bob has proved himself a matchless sheepdog, and if he wins the trophy two more times, he’ll be seen as equal to the legendary sheepdogs of yore. But Bob has a real rival: Red Wull, with his docked tail and bristling yellow fur, a ferocious creature, just like his diminutive master, Adam McAdam, a lonely Scot, estranged not only from his English neighbors but from his son, David. McAdam just can’t stop belittling this strapping young man, all the more so since David began courting Moore’s beautiful daughter Maggie. But what McAdam really wants is for his beloved Wullie to wrest the prize from Bob once and for all. 

I have no idea how I wound up with a copy of Bob, Son of Battle as a child. Call it a classic if you will, but the child abuse and nearly impenetrable dialect don’t make for a natural Troll Book catalog selection. My mother didn’t buy us anything secondhand, so it didn’t come from a used bookstore if my town had such a thing. I don’t have the copy anymore, so the trail is cold. Let’s assume it came from B. Dalton’s in the local mall, as I didn’t encounter a Barnes & Noble or similar until I was 14. However I came by it, I loved that book nearly to death. I loved it because it was an great dog story, the tale of two rival dogs both great in skill but very different in temperament, I loved it because of the dialect, which I could get through by reading the tougher parts out loud and listening to the sound of the words, and now I think I must have loved it because it seemed very grown up.

This new version of Bob, with most of the dialect smoothed out into formal but readable English, seeks to hook a new generation of young readers. Bob, Son of Battle has been called a lost children’s classic. I know I was certainly anxious to see it brought to life again, to see what Lydia Davis made it into, to see if I still loved it, to see if I might be recommending it to a bevy of new Bob fans. Does it hold up? Well, yes and no.

First, it doesn’t read like one of today’s children’s books. None of the main characters are children, at least not for very long. The primary focus is not on the children of the feuding masters or even on the dogs, but mostly on the antagonist Adam McAdam and his relationship with his hellish dog Red Wull. McAdam is a tiny, drunken, yelling, abusive Scotsman. Hello, stereotype. His mother and wife are both dead, and he likes to point to their deaths as well as his perception that the world is against him to explain his poor attitude and give himself an excuse not to be nicer. Sometimes, you feel for him. Certainly he feels a kinship with Red Wull instantly, and his purchase of the pup is more of a rescue from the brutish man who’s selling him. He and the dog are fanatically devoted to each other. Their relationship is beautiful, and they do a lot of good together: rescuing lost pregnant women from winter weather, winning the Cup. But while McAdam worships his dog, he beats his son David. There’s a scene–one of the scenes I remembered best–where he swears to his dead wife that he will treat David better, but when he tries to apologize to David, David assumes he’s about to get griped out again and yells at his father. Instead of saying, “Okay, I can see where he would expect I was going to yell at/beat him with a belt and should probably let him cool down and then try again,” McAdam swears never to try to be nice again. Ever. Even though he promised his wife on her death bed and then promised her picture again years later! Even when I was a kid, I thought that was a stretch. One try? Come on. Anyway, his character is the main focus. Other major points include his rivalry with Bob’s owner, who’s beloved by everyone and too nice to be believed, David’s courtship of Maggie, the rival’s daughter, a mysterious sheep-killing dog whose identity is pretty obvious from the get-go, the arguments and gossip at the local pub, and frequent threats of murder. It’s all so serious and melodramatic, and it’s all very adult, particularly a segment in which McAdam keeps intimating that David is after Maggie not to marry her, but because she’s putting out. He is always one word away from calling her a whore (or some synonym) when David cuts him off, so he never gets the word out of his mouth, but it’s pretty darn clear where he’s going with it. None of this stuff is standard kid fare; it’s more like a soap opera with sheep trials.

The book really shows its age in the casual attitude toward child abuse and David’s crummy treatment of Maggie during their courtship, but what strikes me as an adult reader is how unrealistically the dogs behave. The sheepherding and rescuing of people is done well, but some other happenings had me head-scratching. For instance, the first time Bob ever meets Red Wull, Wullie is a small and already vicious puppy. Bob picks him up and drops him over a bridge in an effort to drown him. NO. I do not care if Bob is smart enough to understand drowning or not, a young male dog would not try to drown a puppy to get rid of it. More likely he’d tolerate it as dogs instinctively go easy on puppies, or if the puppy managed to really upset him, he’d correct it with a growl or muzzle grip. He would not say, “Oh, you are trouble. Let’s just nip this in the bud with an old-fashioned drowning.” I have to laugh because the entire reason I know enough about dogs, particularly herding breeds, to disbelieve these plot points is because this book got me interested in them so many years ago! Speaking of breeds, I had hoped to figure out from the book what breed Owd Bob was, but no luck. He’s depicted as a border collie on the cover, and he herds like a border collie would in posture, but he’s always described as gray (not black) and very large, so that can’t be right. He’s also described as the last of the Gray Dogs, and he is the last because he was the best. What does that mean? He was the pinnacle of perfection so they stopped breeding his line? That is NOT how sheepdog breeding works.

On the other hand, despite basing a lot of the plot on dog behaviors that would never, ever happen, Ollivander knew how to hit you in the heart, particularly when it came to men and their dogs. Even though I was thinking, “Misogyny! Inaccurate dog information! Child abuse purely for the sake of getting readers to care about David!”, I cried when Bob almost died of poison, and of course I cried over the big McAdam/Wullie scene at the end. He also knew how to string a reader along. McAdam is so spiteful, you keep reading to see how bad he can get, and then when he gets so terrible that you’re disgusted and want to quit, he shows a little glimmer of humanity that sucks you back in. Given all that, and the quaint British village setting, and the nailbiter Cup moments, and the fact that I knew beans about dogs at the time, I understand why I loved this book so much when I was a child. I think in many ways, it holds up because it’s built on solid characterizations and celebrates the primal bond between humans and dogs that we sometimes forget about now that we don’t need them for their original purposes, but that they will never forget.

Do I still love Bob? I do, even though I now love its bad guys more than its good guys. Would I recommend it to a child? I wouldn’t recommend it widely, but it still has a quality that makes you believe it and love it, even when it’s being ridiculous, so I can’t say I’d blackball it, either, especially when I enjoyed it so much as a child.

Recommend to: That rare tween who loves classics or historical fiction.

To buy or not to buy: Purchase if you have a solid audience for obscure classics. Be aware that abuse victims will definitely run into triggers here, though.

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