Saturday, January 10, 2015

Rose in a Storm by Jon Katz

8138952Rose in a Storm
by Jon Katz
Villard, 2010
240 pages

This was a fun and different quick read, good for a book club read over Christmas. It's a good winter read, too, for those of you who like reading "in season" - which is an interesting concept in itself. I generally prefer to read cold and snowy books in the winter; also I've noticed that in books set in the cold and snowy winter, the authors make the weather a big deal, not just background scenery.

For a book that wasn't terribly difficult to read it did get off to a slow start. I'd say it took me close to 50 pages to really get into it, but once I got rolling it went fast. Rose is a dog, specifically a working dog on a small farm, where she helps farmer Sam keep the animals in line and occasionally does other useful things as well. She is more of a partner than a pet, and Sam tends to see her as such; she is useful, not to be coddled. One winter, some time after Sam's wife Katie has died of an undisclosed illness (cancer, almost certainly) there is a tremendous, days-long, dangerous winter storm. It's up to Sam alone - and Rose - to keep the animals (sheep, dairy cows and some steers, chickens, a donkey) safe and alive through it as one disaster after another strikes.

The book switches easily and rapidly between perspectives - almost always Rose and sometimes Sam and occasionally a few other perspectives for a very short time. Katz knows dogs, and has done a lot of research and work in the area of dog psychology, and Rose's perspective is as close to what a dog's might be as Katz can possibly make it, while still making it readable. We still understand Rose, while recognizing that she's a different creature from a human, and has motivations and ideas and understandings about the way the world works that are different from what a human's might be. I'd say this was really successful, and while I've always quite liked dogs I came away with a lot more respect for them as separate creatures with agency and intelligence than I had before.

It's possible this was one of Katz's main aims in writing this book - and it occasionally reads like that, too.

One of the things that came home to me is just how dangerous a big winter storm can be, especially to farmers. I think it's easy to forget this, living in the middle of a city where your water pressure isn't dependent on the power being on, and your house is insulated (mostly), and the only creatures dependent on you to survive are in your immediate environs. The chances of a coyote getting in to eat your fish are small, and the most personal danger you're likely to see (except perhaps carbon monoxide poisoning) is having a heart attack from shoveling too much snow, and if you're hurt your neighbours are right next door. In short, it's easy to forget, being in a city, just how powerful and powerfully dangerous nature can be.

Even the problems I had with the ending didn't spoil the read for me. But the ending did unfortunately have some issues. Slight spoilers for the ending follow...

... ready?

This is the most blatant example of a deus ex machina I've seen in a novel in ages. I'm pretty sensitive to these, and I don't like them at all. If anything is swooping out of the snowy wild to save Rose and the farm it had better be set up well ahead of time. (Interestingly, my book club actually had significantly less trouble with this than I did: they thought the deus was clearly Katie, the deceased wife. I can see where they're coming from but I didn't see it clearly enough ahead of time to make it better, and I'm still skeptical.)

The other thing is that I don't think a rescue was necessary; I did think Katz had built up to an unsustainable level of tension and conflict, and I think if he'd dialed things back a bit before the climax he wouldn't have needed a deus ex machina, explained by Katie or otherwise, to wrap things up. He could have dialed things back without losing the forward momentum or the dramatic tension, too; things were plenty dramatic as it was. And then he wouldn't have needed something out-of-the-ordinary to rescue his happy ending.

... /end spoilers

Overall, aside from the ending, this is an entertaining and interesting book, something outside the ordinary. Recommended to animal lovers for sure, and people who like snowy rural stories. It's an easy read and a worthwhile one. I'll definitely be reading more of Katz, though I think I may stick to his nonfiction.

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