From ANIMAL PEOPLE, December 1996:

Simon & Schuster (Rockefeller Center, 1230 Ave. of the Americas, New York, NY 10020), 1996. 126 pp., hardcover, $15.00.

Most noted for The Hidden Life of
D o g s and The Tribe of Tiger, in which she
observed domestic dogs and cats as if they
were wildlife, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas in
Certain Poor Shepherds tells the Nativity
story from the perspective of Ima the goat and
Lila the dog, guardians of one of the flocks
who saw the bright star in the east––along
with a great flight of angels who introduced
them to eating acorns––and commenced their
four-day journey to Bethlehem while their
human master slept.

Unlike the human pilgrims, Ima,
Lila, and their sheep did not seek redemption.
As Thomas explains, “”No redeemer
appeared for the animals; however, none was
needed. The animals were much the same
then as they are now, just as God made them,
perfect according to his plan.”
Thomas convincingly introduces the
animals and their hardships, including Herodlike
massacres of newborn puppies, under the
authority of a master who seems more blind to
their suffering than purposely cruel. He is
blind, as well, to both the presence of angels
and the threat of nearby predators.
But Thomas slips in allowing the
animals’ exodus just one page, during which
the valuable herd is apparently neither pursued
by the master––who should have been
able to follow their tracks––nor misappropriated
by anyone else.
Never mind. This is a Christmas
story, a miracle story, and as Ambrose
Bierce explained in The Devil’s Dictionary, a
miracle is “An act or event out of the order of
nature and unaccountable, as beating a normal
hand of four kings and an ace with four
aces and a king.”
Ima and Lila are up against four
kings when they reach Bethlehem––especially
Gaspar, of the Biblical Three Kings, who
sets an eagle on birds and the occasional angel
by day, sending a cheetah to hunt gazelles
––though the cheetah prefers sheep––at dawn
and dusk. There is also Yom, the homeless
king of the Bethlehem dogs.
But Lila conquers Yom without a
fight, making him her devoted consort, while
the cheetah proves more a knave than an ace.
Thomas has written a great
Christmas yarn, with echoes not only of the
familiar Nativity story but also of the Old
Testament stories preceding it. Some may see
Thomas’ passage loosely paralleling the
Abraham and Isaac story as heretical––but
Isaiah and probably Jesus would not have.
And Lila, taking a last look behind her as she
herds her flock away from slaughter, seems to
understand why Jesus chose self-sacrifice:
“If the king’s camp was not a place
for them, it was therefore not a place for Lila.
She was a shepherd. Her place was with those
who were in her care, and her task was to
protect them. She knew her duty. And all she
wanted was to do her duty––nothing less or
more. Turning from her vision of the kings
and their food, she raced after the sheep, urging
them to hurry.”
Thomas suggests in an epilogue,
“Surely it is our own animal nature that recognizes
the divinity of the natural world in all its
mystery and beauty, despite the distressing
habits and limited perception that afflict our
species. So perhaps our hope of redemption
lies in the fact that we are animals, not that
we are people.”

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