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Writers Use Dogs as Characters in Fiction

A lovely older dog lounges on the cover of The Book of Why, although this novel is not a dog story, per se. It’s a story about love and loss and grief and sorrow, about one man’s struggle to move on in a life that seems to lack meaning, direction or joy.

This beautifully written and pleasantly quirky novel by Nicholas Montemarano is about much more, but I don’t want to give away too much of the story.

Although it isn’t a “dog book,” the dog in the book is an important character from beginning to end.

The female dog is named Ralph. She doesn’t talk, solve murders or rescue children (I’ve passed on the chance to write about books where dogs do all of those things). Ralph lives in the novel the way dogs live in the lives of dog lovers everywhere — sleeping a lot, playing fetch and loving the people who love her.

In the early pages of the book we learn that Ralph is 12 years old, and we see that her human companion, a widower named Eric Newborn, is headed toward another loss:

“I have the dog, too — a long-haired German shepherd. She used to be hers, then ours, now mine, but I think of the dog, still, as ours,” he says in the first-person narrative.

At the end of the book, the author thanks many people, including his wife, Nicole Michels, and their son, Dangiso, 4. The acknowledgments end with: “Finally, of course, Ralph — best dog in the universe.”

“Twelve years ago, I became a dog owner, and dogs started popping up in my work,” Montemarano said in a phone interview. “I draw upon my own life and experience as a starting point in the fiction I write.”

“His” Ralph, a German shepherd, was Michels’ dog when first they met. “Her” dog became “their” dog.

Montemarano, 43, is an associate professor of English and department chair at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. The Book of Why, published in hardback in 2013 by Little, Brown and Co., is now out in paperback for $15.

There are other quality writers who work dogs and other animals into their fiction, most notably Amy Hempel. A chimp plays a heartbreaking role in her famous and widely anthologized short story In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried.

Animals are important characters in many of Hempel’s short stories, including In the Animal Shelter and At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom.

A wife who is losing her husband to another woman in The Dog of the Marriage works as a dog trainer at a school for the blind. The character says, “I work with these dogs every day, and their capability, their decency, shames me.”

In real life, Hempel volunteers as a puppy raiser and trainer for Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Yorktown Heights, N.Y.

Montemarano did some of my homework, recommending other writers and books that include dogs: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski; Dog Years, a memoir by poet Mark Doty; My Dog Tulip by the late British writer J. R. Ackerley; and anything by Jack London.

Hempel and Jim Shephard co-edited Unleashed: Poems by Writers’ Dogs ” And here’s a fun fact: Montemarano met Hempel when they were both teaching in the Master’s of Fine Arts program at Bennington College. He says she’s “a lovely person.”