How the hell have I overlooked this amazing book for thirteen years?
Well, okay. Will Shetterly is not a name I routinely look for on the bookshelves ((At least, it didn’t used to be. That’s changed, now)). Long ago, I read Cats Have No Lord, and the stuff he’d written in the Borderlands series, but while it was okay, none of it really grabbed me, and I started ignoring his stuff.
I don’t remember where I heard about Dogland. I just remember seeing the book in the store, and thinking, “Oh, yeah. That’s supposed to be good.” So, I bought it. And then it sat on my shelf for several months before I got around to it.
What’s the book about? Well, it’s about a young boy – four years old, almost five, when the story starts – who, in 1959, moves with his family to rural Florida, where they start up a tourist attraction called Dogland. Because of his father’s colourblind approach to hiring and the way he treats people, the family runs into some problems with the less-enlightened folks in the area.
That’s the basics of the plot, but the book goes far, far deeper. It’s also about how we learn what is right, how we gain our values, how we build families, and how stories shape the world. Or at least, our perceptions of the world. Because the book is also about how our memories are less reliable than our imaginations, and when we think we’re engaging with the real world, we’re often just engaging with the stories we tell ourselves about the world.
I know, I know. It sounds like pretentious literary navel-gazing. It isn’t. It’s saved from that fate by a clear, simple, involving writing style and a good story that’s worth reading even without the interpretation I just made ((I can’t help it. Being an English major in university has damaged something in my brain. I have to think about stories in this fashion.)).
The first chapter has the main character, Chris Nix, telling stories about his family that were told to him, and he’s very clear there that he can’t vouch for the truth of them. That sets the stage for the rest of the book, which is Chris Nix telling stories about his family that he witnessed. The entire book is a series of anecdotes, vignettes almost, pulled from the life and viewpoint and understanding of a young boy who doesn’t really understand everything that’s going on.
Because there’s a lot going on that the reader understands but Chris doesn’t. Adult things, deep things, important things, things that change the way the world is. But Chris, being just a child, merely witnesses without really understanding, and gives equal weight to the fear he has of jumping into the water from the roof of a houseboat as he does to the fear he has when a Klan rally shows up at Dogland.
The fantasy in the book is very subtle, and revealed mainly if you pay attention to the names of the characters. But there are mythic patterns playing out, and an important battle between good and evil. It’s balanced by, and given the same treatment as the strain of a difficult family situation and the problem of bullies.
What I’m trying to say is that Shetterly presents a wonderful, faceted look into a solidly realized world. We can’t see the whole thing, but we see enough of it to know the shape, and it feels so true to childhood memory that it’s easy to accept as real. Reading it, I was reminded of Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes, as well as Dan Simmons’s Summer of Night, and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.
I’m currently reading Shetterly’s The Gospel of the Knife, which is also very good, but very different ((It’s written in second-person voice, for one thing. And I gotta applaud the courage of the writer who attempts that, as well as the skill of the writer that pulls it off. Shetterly does both, so standing ovation for him.)), even though it also deals with Chris Nix, now 14 years old.
Pick the books up if you like modern fantasy, or magical realism ((I don’t really know what the difference is. As far as I can tell, “magical realism” is a label writers and publishers use to avoid the genre ghetto, so they can be considered serious and literary.)). Me, I’m going to keep looking for new stuff from Will Shetterly. Hopefully more of the Chris Nix stories.
I really don’t want to miss another book like this for thirteen years.