The Plague Dogs
by Richard Adams
The author of Watership Down
is otherwise mostly known for this book about a pair of dogs who escape from a cruel, scientific-research facility in present-day England. Rowf is a big black bear of a dog who was repeatedly sent to the brink of drowning in a big metal tank. Snitter is a friendly terrier who, after a tragic accident took his master out of the picture, was sold to an experiment in brain surgery. Together, this deeply wounded pair of animals elude capture, spark a media frenzy and a political head-hunt, take part in some astounding accidents, travel with a wild fox, and try to see if they can live as wild animals without human masters.
But its no good. With starvatioin closing in on one side, irate farmers and citizens on the other, and armed paratroopers dropping from above, the dogs stand little chance. Over all, then, it is a gripping, heartbreaking tale of survival against the odds, and of honest creatures struggling to escape from the backstabbing duplicity of mankind.
But this book is also several other things that may make it difficult to read. It is a sometimes shrill document of environmental politics. It is a distasteful exposé of bad government and bad science. It reveals hard truths about human nature, and about nature in general. It has some distinctly unattractive characters, particularly including a sleazoid journalist who ends up being one of the good guys (hard as that is to believe). And it also has a tendency to maunder on and on about topographical and geographical features that mean nothing to anyone who hasnt been in Englands Lake Country; a deal of dialogue in the thick Geordie accent which, even filtered through an Americanized version of the book, is sometimes hard for non-Brits to follow; a name-dropping, classical-education-flaunting tendency to cite great works of literature that none of us have actually read IN THEIR ORIGINAL LATIN OR GREEK; and some daring experiments in closing the distance between the narrator and the reader which, in some cases, risk a bit too much. Also, frankly, some of the language describing the scenes in or around Parliament were a bit too subtle for anyone who does not have an intimate familiarity with British politics; and I personally felt it as a triumph when I recognized a German quotation (melody and all) from one of Schuberts songs but I majored in music, so thats scant comfort for many of you.
My overall verdict, therefore, is mixed. The Plague Dogs is a terrific book, but it is also a tough one to get through unless you know everything that Richard Adams knows. It comes as a bit of a reward when, near the end of it, a couple of characters talk about the author as if behind his back. My advice is to do your homework, read lots of stuff, and learn to love dogs...then read this book.
Recommended Age: 14+
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