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Book Notes: Author Tom Ryan’s dogs set the course for his work

  • Tom Ryan with his dog Atticus, who hiked New Hampshire's 4,000-foot peaks with Ryan and became the subject of a book. (Courtesy Tom Ryan)

  • Tom Ryan and his dog Will, who became the subject of Ryan's 2017 book "Will's Red Coat." (Courtesy Tom Ryan)

  • Author Tom Ryan hikes with his two current dogs, Samwise, left, and Emily, on a recent trip to the American Southwest. Ryan has made a specialty of writing about his dogs. (Courtesy Tom Ryan)

Staff Reports
Published: 9/5/2019 10:00:21 PM
Modified: 9/5/2019 10:00:11 PM

Whenever author Tom Ryan recounts for an audience his life with the miniature schnauzers who led him onto the best-seller lists, he brings along his “new” dogs — mixed breeds Samwise and Emily.

And at most appearances, someone poses The Question to the 58-year-old Jackson, N.H., resident, after seeing his current canine companions sitting sagely beside him, or pictures of the late subjects of his memoirs Following Atticus and Will’s Red Coat.

“So often they’ll ask, ‘Don’t you wish they could speak?’” Ryan said during a phone interview on Wednesday from his Jackson, N.H., home. “I’m like, ‘They do. They just speak differently than you and I.’ ”

On Friday night in Woodstock’s Town Hall Theatre, Upper Valley animal lovers and bibliophiles of all stripes can meet Emily and Samwise while Tom Ryan translates, or at least interprets, what dogs have been communicating to him since Atticus came into his life as a puppy in 2002.

In 2007, Ryan left his alternative newspaper in Newburyport, Mass., to follow Atticus up all 48 of New Hampshire’s peaks of 4,000 feet or higher, each of which they reached about a dozen times.

In 2011’s Following Atticus: Forty-eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship, Ryan finds in the mountains, and with Atticus, a path through a variety of troubling issues in his life, most poignantly his relationship with his father.

That journey in turn led Ryan to adopt, very much against his better judgment, a deaf, mostly blind older schnauzer with an equal-parts volatile and sad brew of fear, anger and depression.

During his first several months with Ryan, while the ever-Zen Atticus mostly observed from a discrete distance, Will vindicated Ryan’s worst misgivings. The first half of Will’s Red Coat relives a cycle of biting — “I’ve still got the scars on my hand to prove it,” Ryan said — bumping into unseen obstacles and falling into his own, unceremoniously-released body wastes.

And just when the reader begins to despair of a happy ending, Will turns, ever so gradually, toward the light, and inspires the book’s subtitle: The Story of One Old Dog Who Chose to Live Again. While he can’t walk far or for long, let alone climb 4,000-footers, Will welcomes Ryan’s efforts to bring him to as many wild, quiet places as possible, whether in Ryan’s arms or in a stroller.

Long before starting the book, Ryan posted on the Following Atticus Facebook page photos and short accounts of Will’s blossoming, particularly the dog’s blissful encounters with flowers.

“During his last week or two, he got 2.4 million hits on the Facebook page,” Ryan recalled. “If any of us could go out the way Will did, what a gift.”

Through Will’s long march, Ryan already was battling a variety of his own ailments, and more followed, as if in reaction to the stresses he documents in the second book. One heart episode kept him away from Atticus’ side “for most of the last weeks of his life” in 2016, Ryan said. “I wish I could have been there.”

Over the ensuing two years, Ryan almost followed Atticus. “I had a stroke, a heart attack, heart failure and kidney failure — the Pu-Pu Platter of Death,” he recalled. “I’m very fortunate to be here.”

In addition to Samwise and Emily, with whom he walks five miles a day in the woods around Jackson, Ryan credits a drastic change in diet with helping him lose 135 pounds since July 2018.

“I hadn’t eaten meat for a long time, and last year I went on Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn’s plant-based regimen of whole foods,” Ryan said. “No nuts, no oils, no nut butters. I don’t even have avocados.”

The abstinence is making his heart beat stronger, and at higher elevations for the first time in years.

“That has allowed me to get off some medications, which allows me to go up again,” Ryan said. “In July, we made it up (Mount) Garfield, the first of five 4,000-footers in six days.”

Ryan also has the energy, after the daily walks, to work on his third memoir, which he says “is going to be a little different from the first two. Emily and Sam are in it, but not as much the focus.”

As he did with the stories of Atticus and Will, Ryan tunes his literary voice by writing “at least two or three letters a day” to friends, family and readers.

“In the first draft of Following Atticus, I became very mechanical about my writing,” he said. “I threw that one out and started over again by writing it in the form of letters to imaginary grandchildren. It’s a great exercise.

“You’re writing from your heart instead of writing strictly from your head.”

Tom Ryan talks about his best-selling books, Following Atticus and Will’s Red Coat, on Friday night at 6 in Woodstock’s Town Hall Theatre. A 5 p.m. reception precedes the talk. Proceeds from the general-admission price of $25 and the VIP ticket price of $125 benefit the programs of the Lucy Mackenzie Humane Society.

— David Corriveau

More about dogs and plant-based diets

Tom Ryan isn’t the only New Hampshire author writing about dogs. Although in Claremont writer Margaret Hurley’s case, the anthropomorphized canine is her co-author.

The Dog Who Ate the Vegetable Garden and Helped Save the Planet is narrated by Hurley’s boxer, Dorothea, who, as the title suggests, likes to eat vegetables and is kind of full of herself. The extent to which a reader engages with Dori’s account of her owner’s activism on behalf of the vegan diet, animal liberation and other causes is likely to be in direct proportion to the reader’s interest in those causes. Dori “writes” in short sentences, the kind of thoughts one might imagine a dog would have, if one were deeply invested in imagining a dog’s thoughts. The book was published earlier this year by Guernica World Editions.

— Alex Hanson

A bibliophile’s notes

Strafford resident Jon Gilbert Fox is best known as a photographer of grace and charm, but he has also dedicated his life to collecting books. In a talk titled “Beware the Man With One Book,” Fox will discuss his collecting habit, help the audience understand how to recognize first editions and other valuable books and tell the stories behind some of the books in his keeping at 7 p.m. on Thursday in the Mayer Room of Hanover’s Howe Library.

— AH

Quechee residenttells his Vietnam story

In Memories Unleashed, Carl Small recounts his experiences fighting in the Vietnam War in 1969. They are memories made no less vivid with the passage of time. Small, who grew up in Vermont and lives in Quechee, describes his 13 months of combat in a matter-of-fact manner that’s both graphic and tender. He tells of digging a grave for an enemy soldier dying of gruesome wounds, then dropping in a mountain orchid he’d picked along the path; of celebrating birthdays with moldy cookies and candles that drooped in the heat; of killing a Viet Cong soldier with his own bayonet; of pressing crackers into a young boy’s hand after sparing the life of his water buffalo. The memoir, published in April by Casemate Publishers, is the first time Small has spoken of the war.

— Sarah Earle

Lebanon farm has rolein ‘Cider Revival’

Orchard hopping across two continents, Jason Wilson’s new book The Cider Revival doesn’t neglect a visit to Poverty Lane Orchards in Lebanon to explore what cider enthusiasts consider the birthplace of the modern-day cider boom. There, Steve Wood and Louisa Spencer founded Farnum Hill Ciders in the ‘90s, as foreign markets began taking a bite out of local apple sales and forcing many apple farmers to sell. In the book, published this month by Abrams Press, Wood is quick to point out to Wilson, in colorful language, that he never meant to be the godfather of the cider industry and has no idea what he’s doing. His tart tone pairs well with Wilson’s wit.

— SE

Water connects New England and its people

It’s easy to forget, even after incidents like the Flint water crisis, the complex and delicate processes behind the water we consume and enjoy. In his new book, Water Connections, Jim Rousmaniere gives water a starring role, highlighting important environmental issues through stories about bodies of water around New England. The former Keene Sentinel editor, who lives in Roxbury, N.H., touches on topics ranging from fish migration to fluoridation to contamination. He holds up the Lake Sunapee Protective Association, the first environmental organization in New Hampshire, as an exemplar for citizen activists. That group, formed in 1898 in response to pollution created by mills along the lake, has been at the forefront of water research around the world. The book, released in June by Bauhan Publishing, also discusses how Vermont responded to Hurricane Irene’s destruction in 2011 by creating a public awareness and education campaign about rivers and streams.

— SE

New Hampshire’sstately assembly halls

Once the hearts of their communities, white clapboard churches and meetinghouses now symbolize the quintessential New England town and come briefly to life on voting day. Glenn Knoblock, a historian who lives in Wolfeboro, N.H., sheds new light on these buildings in his book Historic Meetinghouses and Churches of New Hampshire. The book, released in July by Arcadia Publishing and The History Press, catalogs more than 100 meetinghouses and churches, exploring their architectural details as well as the history of how each was built and some of the events that transpired within them. Numerous Upper Valley churches and meetinghouses are featured in the book, including the Canaan Meetinghouse, whose upper hall was once used as a roller skating rink, the First Congregational Church of Lebanon, whose architect, Ammi Burnham Young, went on to design numerous federal buildings, and the Orford Congregational Church, a prime example of Gothic Revival architecture.

— SE

A new takeon childhood’s travails

Dan Hamel, of Hartland, follows up his 2016 book Take the Bullying by the Horns with another book aimed to help children deal with life’s hardships. Hamel, who writes under the pen name Hunter Dan, recently self published It’s OK to Cry, which tells the story of a boy struggling with the death of his grandfather. Like his first children’s book, it’s illustrated by Pam Hodgdon, of Windsor.

Hamel also recently published his first novel, Rebel Reprieve, which follows a Boston man who experiences a rapid succession of life-changing events that lead him to Vermont. The book is available through Amazon and at Hamel’s website,

■Other books to cross our desks recently include the novel The Mystical Adventures of Stavros Papadakis, a modern-day Scrooge tale of sorts by Concord author Michael Lavoy (2019, Monteverdi Press), and Abandoned New Hampshire, a collection of photographs of the state’s forgotten buildings (2019, Arcadia Publishing and The History Press).

— SE

Sarah Earle can be reached at or 603-727-3268. David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@ or 603-727-3304. Alex Hanson can be reached at or 603-727- 3207.

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