Kaya McLaren,
Church of the Dog
(Penguin, 2008)

This is a very character-driven tale, with a hint of the supernatural. It focuses on four main characters: Earl, Edith, Daniel and Mara. Earl and Edith are an older couple living on their cattle ranch in Oregon, and Daniel is their grandson. Earl and Edith were going to have two children, but Edith had a miscarriage following an accident, and their son, Sam, died in a tragic accident with his wife when he was a young adult, when their son, Daniel, was 8. Earl and Edith raised Daniel. Mara is a free-spirited art teacher who is a bit adrift in life, but lands a job in the small town near Earl and Edith's homestead.

Daniel, at the beginning of the book, has semi-disappeared, working as a fisherman in Alaska for reasons that come out later in the story. By the end of the book, almost everything -- and everyone -- has changed.

Events occur in the story, but action is a minor aspect of this book. What is dominant is the relationships, interactions and emotions of the characters. Not all four of those main characters will still be alive by the end of the tale, and the focus of the book is handling the changes that occur, and how crises can encourage people to grow in maturity and perspective. In what is actually a small story, told in but 221 pages, is almost every aspect of the human condition. It is resplendent with the joy of living fully, with the premise that the richness of life is to be experienced fully in its every form, even when that includes tragedy.

The level of development of the characters is a big part of what makes this book as moving and powerful as it is. I know these people! That is how realistic they are, even with Mara's quirks. Oh, I did not mention her quirks, did I? Mara sees auras around people, travels in her lucid dreams and has some very unconventional beliefs about the nature of life, healing, death and the hereafter. At times, it was a bit more new-agey than I am used to, and I was initially concerned that Mara's aura-seeing and ideas about healing might be dominant enough in the story to cost it its credibility, but that apprehension was quickly dispelled. While Mara's unorthodox beliefs and unusual abilities -- or beliefs about her abilities -- do continue throughout the story, they are actually not a major factor, but do come off as just an unusual aspect of an otherwise still very credible and likeable character.

The end result of the convergence of these rich, credible characters, is a story that might be the most emotionally powerful tale I have ever read. It covers the entire spectrum of human emotion, and in a manner that simultaneously pulls no punches yet never comes off as melodramatic or meant to push your buttons just for the sake of doing so.

Several strong opinions are voiced in this book. A strong argument for vegetarianism is made, but not in a way that offended this definitely omnivorous reader-reviewer. Organized religion also takes a pretty big hit, here, but not in a condemnatory or sanctimonious or sacrilegious way. Instead, the characters state objections to certain aspects of organized religion, and hypocrisy is condemned, but spirituality and morality and living according to a belief system are lauded.

As I said above, I ended up feeling that I knew the characters, and I am glad to have met them. This book is one of those books that, once one reads it, it is unlikely to ever be forgotten. While I am not sure that it changed any of my beliefs, it definitely inspired me to remember to relish every aspect of life, no matter how painful it might be, and to always strive to move forward toward a better way of dealing with people. Can one ask for more from a reading experience?

review by
Chris McCallister

18 October 2008

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

what's new