Will Shetterly,
Dogland
(Tor, 1997)

Will Shetterly turns from the urban fantasy of his Borderlands books Elsewhere and Nevernever to Dogland, a much more complex and subtle work of mythic fiction.

Chris Nix is 4 when his family moves to Florida, where his parents, Luke and Susan, plan to build Dogland, a tourist attraction featuring every breed of dog recognized by the American Kennel Club. Their first friend is Artie Drake, the realtor who sells Luke the property in spite of a nasty encounter with a rattlesnake. Soon enough, other friends enter their lives: Maggie DeLyon, owner of the Fountain of Youth Motel; Gideon Shale, evangelical proprietor of a hamburger stand who dispenses quotes from the Bible and Shakespeare with his 19-cent burgers; Ethorne Hawkins, an elderly black cook; and Mayella, James and Seth, members of Ethorne's family.

Luke Nix practices colorblind hiring and refuses to segregate the restaurant that goes along with Dogland; consequently, he draws a lot of negative attention, particularly from the Ku Klux Klan. At the same time, Dogland seems blessed by some benevolent spirit, because it attracts a steady stream of visitors. Eventually, though, things start to go awry when local developer Nick Lumiere sets up a rival attraction and makes a bid for both the Fountain of Youth and Dogland properties. Lumiere is the kind of businessman who will stop at nothing and will use people to achieve his ends, but he does not count on the love and loyalty surrounding the Nix family.

Shetterly captures the childlike wonder in Chris' narrative; in his world, there is magic present everywhere. The story is multi-leveled: on one level, it is the story of three years in a family's life during a time of social turbulence and change, a not-quite-coming-of-age story. On another level, observant readers will see how this is a work of mythic fiction, and those versed in folklore are in for a treat. Shetterly works the mythic elements into the tale subtly, and it pays to be attentive to the details.

The characters are complex and well rounded, but I do have a slight problem with Chris as a 4-year-old narrator. While the story is obviously told by an adult looking back, Chris acts and responds like a child older than his age, as does his sister, Little Bit, who is a year younger. This, however, is a minor and subjective flaw; as Shetterly lived in Florida between the ages of 4 and 10 while his parents ran the real Dogland, I am loathe to question the quality of his memories.

Dogland is one of the more thoughtful and engrossing books I have read in quite some time, fresh and original with universal resonance.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]



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