When William's father leaves, his mother takes him and his sister to the local animal shelter, seeking to fill the void created by his absence. Instead of just one animal, they adopt 4 dogs and a cat. As if by magic, four-year-old Elinor can understand and talk to the animals. Will would like to experience the magic for himself, but can he be as brave and as strong as he needs to be to believe?
Patricia MacLachlan has a really wonderful way with words, and this book is further demonstration of her talent. What I love most about her writing is that she conveys complex ideas with simple and sparing language, and there's no extra padding.
More than just talking animals, the pets (mostly the dogs) act as a kind of chorus, frequently interrupting Will's narrative to provide commentary on the things he doesn't tell you. The pets are wise, thoughtful and funny, and at first, only Elinor can understand them. This, according to the dogs, is because she's four, and four-year-olds understand everything.
As four-year-olds tend to be, Elinor is a little sponge, and she absorbs, and acts on what she sees and hears. I couldn't help but smile at her ongoing list of bad "woods" as she calls them, and how quickly she picks up on the idea that her father is flawed. When he finally calls to speak to them, doesn't hesitate to tell him off, and she has a kind of matter-of-fact way about her.
Will is grieving for his father, but pushes the hurt deep down inside of him and doesn't talk about it so he won't upset his mother or sister. In fact, nobody is talking about it at all, and only the dogs understand what's really going on.
There are some very funny moments, and some very serious moments. There were parts that made me laugh out loud, and yes- points in the story where I was moved to tears. It really is a special read, and I liken it to books like Eggs by Jerry Spinelli or Laurel Snyder's new book Bigger Than a Breadbox but for a slightly younger audience.
My only criticism of this novel is that it's one of those books that is difficult to place. The cover illustration and the format suggest a book for early readers (7-9 years old) but it just feels a bit too sophisticated to be properly read and understood by kids that young. The language is lyrical and poetic, and whether you read it on your own, or read it with kids, you will come away from it being thoroughly enchanted.