A Man of His Own
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 2013: (Actually published on November 20, 2013.)
A Man of His Own by Susan Wilson St. Martin’s Press (175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010), 2013. 358 pages, hardcover. $24.99.
A Man of His Own is a novel based on the origins of the U.S. Army K-9 program during World War II. The original purpose of the “Dogs for Defense” program, as it was originally called when begun in 1942, appears to have been to increase the feeling of U.S. civilians that they were participating usefully in the war effort by asking them to volunteer their dogs for military duty. At the same time, conscripting dogs was expected to reduce grumbling about dogs getting meat scraps while meat was rationed. Britain had already addressed an anticipated critical shortage of pet food by killing as many as 750,000 dogs and cats in 1939-1940, against the opposition of the Royal SPCA, People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals, Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, and the National Canine Defence League, now called Dogs Trust. At first the U.S. Army did not really know what to do with all of the dogs who were offered for service. Many were put through basic obedience trials, given a biscuit, and sent back home. But eventually many German shepherds, Labrador retrievers, collies, and mixed breeds of similar conformation were extensively used for scouting, guard work, and carrying messages. (Contrary to current myth, bully breeds were not used.) A Man of His Own begins with minor league baseball player Rick Stanton going to war, leaving behind his new bride Francesca and Pax, a stray German shepherd puppy. Pax becomes a steady source of comfort and support to Francesca, but eventually she enlists him in “Dogs for Defense.” Pax is trained by Keller Nicholson, an orphan who has had multiple homes, and serves with Nicholson in combat. Gravely injured, Stanton comes home paralyzed and emotionally broken. Pax is returned after the war to the Stanton family, but Nicholson also wants him. Eventually Francesca invites Nicholson to moves in to help her care for Stanton, who is confined to a wheelchair and rarely leaves his room. A Man of His Own has been critically acclaimed, but to me the true story of “Dogs for Defense” was more interesting, detailed in Loyal Forces: The American Animals of World War II, by Toni M. Kiser & Lindsey F. Barnes. The sad story of British dogs during World War II is detailed in Bonzo’s War: Animals Under Fire 1939-1945, by Clare Campbell. ––Debra J. White