“Whippoorwill” by Joseph Monninger is a beautiful story about a girl, a boy, and the dog who saves them. Wally, the big black dog who lives in the backyard next door to sixteen-year-old Clair, is chained to a pole every day and night. His pathetic world is filled with excrement, bitter cold in the winter, biting bugs in the summer, and barely enough to eat from the scraps thrown on the ground when he is remembered by the occupants of the house.
The story begins on a frigid February night when the temperature in New Hampshire is thirty below zero. Wally is chained, as always, to a pole. His legs are covered with snow, and Claire wonders if he has frozen to death. She says, in the first person narrative, “A dog is a social animal. Tying a dog out on a pole by himself is about the cruelest thing you can do to a canine.”
Because her bedroom window looks out over her neighbor’s yard, she sees Danny Stewart when he throws the scraps at Wally. The Stewarts are Whippoorwills, the New Hampshire term for those whose yards are filled with all kinds of trash and rubbish, cars, and other detritus.
Monninger must have a dog or must have studied them because his description of Wally’s forlorn despair is heartfelt. Even more than food, Wally wants attention. Claire finds a book in the school library by a priest named Father Jasper. Father Jasper taught himself to train dogs and his book gives Claire the strength and the information she needs to try to help Wally.
After her first disastrous attempt to take Wally for a walk, Danny Stewart, the eighteen-year-old boy who lives with his abusive father, cleans up Wally’s yard and bathes him — perhaps ashamed at the conditions under which Wally had been living. The description of Wally is heartbreaking. He is not a young dog, and his life has not been a good one. Claire informs us that “…Underneath his collar, his neck had red sores and fresh blood.” When she talks to him and asks him how he will behave if she unchains him, he cocks his head to the side.
“I saw that he had once wanted to play, and to be friends with humans, and that he had suffered and taken it and he had slept on ice. Despite all that, he still hoped for kindness, and I couldn’t help it anymore. I started to cry and I moved closer and I put my arms around his neck.”
The rest of the story is about Claire, Wally, and Danny. Claire’s mother had died three years earlier in an accident which is still cloaked in mystery. Was it an accident, or did she kill herself? It’s never clear. But Claire lives with her well-meaning, if sometimes clueless, loving father. Danny, next door, lives with his father who is never well-meaning or loving. Those who know him describe him as someone who won’t stop beating up a person even after that person is down. He’s cruel and angry at the world. Since Danny’s mother left, he has been cruel and abusive to Danny.
Danny sees Claire’s attempt to help Wally, and he joins her. Together, they work with Wally and teach him manners. Wally’s gratitude at being with people is touching, and his progress is a wonderful process to encounter. Throughout the book are aphorisms by Father Jasper about dogs, and some of them seem to be aphorisms about life: “What we find in a dog is what we bring to a dog.”
Claire and Danny become friends, but even though they spend time together with Wally, they never really discuss important things. Danny never discusses his father or his home life. He is almost pathetically eager to help Claire with Wally, and to befriend Claire, as if it’s the first time in his life he’s been able to feel positive emotions.
Danny and Wally have much in common. They have both been treated inhumanely for much of their lives, and they both bloom with Claire’s guidance. While Claire is thrilled with the progress they make with Wally, she is also uncomfortable with Danny’s unspoken need for companionship and attention.
“A dog is part of heaven, Father Jasper says. A dog will lead you to heaven if you let him.”
Actually, the book is heartbreaking. It’s wonderful, touching, beautiful, and ultimately, heartbreaking, even though the ending is hopeful. While this reviewer will admit that embarrassing as it might be, this book was requested because of the dog on the cover, it’s much more than a book about a dog, although the dog is central to the story.
“Whippoorwill” is about how life isn’t always what we think it will be, and our dreams don’t always come true. It’s about doing the right thing even if it’s difficult. It’s about not judging others by appearances (or back yards). And it’s about how it’s never too late to change.
This book is perfect for young readers 13 and older. It would be a great choice for the English Language Arts classroom for its themes of compassion, prejudice, loss, change, family, and abuse.
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