BOOKS: Pep: The Story Of A Brave Dog

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 2004:

Humane Education Classic

Pep: The Story Of A Brave Dog
by Clarence Hawkes
Illustrated by William Van Dresser
Milton Bradley Co. (Springfield, Mass.), 1922.

“Pep is a purposeful book–the story of a faithful,
intelligent dog, which should help to do for the dog what Anna
Sewell’s Black Beauty did for the horse,” opined William H.
Micheals, superintendent of schools in Media, Pennsylvania, in
prefacing the 1928 edition of a volume which had already become a
classroom hit.
Pep did not achieve the enduring popularity of Black Beauty,
and frankly is not at that level of literary skill. It has not been
reprinted for many decades now, though it was once a staple of
humane education.
It is still a page-turner. Several generations of my family
have enjoyed Pep, and I found on rereading it for the first time in
42 years that it still held my interest, not least because author
Clarence Hawkes is convincing when he narrates from the dog’s point
of view.

Written on behalf of all dogs, Pep also was an early
effort, perhaps the first, to rehabilitate the image of pit bull
terriers. In both the rhetoric it uses and the examples it presents,
Pep seems to presage most recent defenses of the breed.
Not mentioned in the text, but in the immediate background,
was that dogfighting had relatively recently been banned in many
states, and was still legal here in Washington as well as in much of
the South. Animal shelters then as now were filled with pit bulls
for whom there were no homes.
Efforts were made to adopt them out, but the vast majority
were killed, until by the middle of the 20th century pit bulls had
become temporarily scarce.
“Pep was the usual type of bull terrier,” Hawkes tells us,
“about 16 inches at the shoulders and weighing nearly 40 pounds,”
small by current standards. In those days both pit bulls and people
were usually smaller.
Pep is also described as an “English bull terrier” early in
the book, which enables him to win an unnamed exhibition that
appears to have been inspired by the Westminister Dog Show. His
fighting pedigree is later recognized immediately by a British
stretcher bearer, but Pep himself never fights.
Drawings by William Van Dresser show a battle-scarred white
Staffordshire on the cover, and several white Staffordshire show
dogs inside.
Pep belongs to an American doctor living somewhere about two hours
from New York City by train. The doctor is drafted and sent to
France in 1917, without benefit of military training–unless his
previous location was West Point, a geographic possibility.
Running away from home when left behind, Pep overtakes the
doctor’s train when it is derailed by a broken axle. Finding no way
to make himself useful, Pep is left again, but leaps aboard the
platform behind the last car when the train continues, and
eventually obliges the doctor to take him on the troop ship to France.
There are, improbably, two little girls on the ship. One,
named Hilda, is swept overboard in a storm. The doctor throws Pep
into the sea to save her.
Later the ship is torpedoed by a German submarine. The
people escape in lifeboats. Pep swims behind for an hour before the
doctor thinks to tie a shoelace to his collar to help him keep up.
Pep then swims two more hours to reach shore.
In France Pep distinguishes himself as a therapy dog,
comforting the doctor, other medical personnel, and wounded
soldiers. When the doctor is sent to the front during the March 1918
battle to retake Ardennes forest from the Germans, who had held it
since August 1914, he is shot through the hips. Pep finds him. The
doctor throws his canteen into a convenient stream; Pep retrieves it
repeatedly, bringing water. Eventually Pep fetches help, saving
the doctor’s life, but is wounded himself by shrapnel. While
convalescing, Pep resumes his work as a therapy dog, until he and
the doctor sail home.
Apparently the Allied command has decided that Hilda too
should be sent home from the Western Front. Pep and the doctor join
her on the same “great ship on which they had come across.” Exactly
how the ship was resurrected after being torpedoed and sent to the
bottom is never discussed.
Hawkes was among the most popular story-tellers of his time,
producing 53 books in all, chiefly on animal themes. Blinded at age
13, Hawkes wrote by dictation. Instead of filling in details from
observation and imagination, Hawkes relied on research. He made
mistakes when misled by sources, for example in describing sled dog
racing as an activity performed by two-man teams of mushers, but
that was a matter of confusing competitive practice with the methods
of freight teams. He correctly described the difference between
native and racing team hitches.
Though Hawkes to his credit does not resort to whining “But
it really happened!” in defense of his rather exaggerated plot, it
is an amalgam of deeds actually done by many different dogs, on many
different occasions. Despite some howlers, Hawkes’ accuracy quotient
was rather high, by the standards of either then or now, and his
audacity in describing the evolution of wolves from dogs far exceeds
what most writers with a schoolroom audience would attempt today.
The courage of his publisher should also be noted, in that
Pep first appeared three years before John T. Scopes was tried in
Tennessee for teaching evolution, and was kept in print long after
Scopes was convicted and fined.
Wrote Micheals, “The educational value of Pep lies chiefly
in its effort to develop kindness toward animals, and books like
this will do more to stimulate humaneness in the child’s mind than
all the ‘Be Kind to Animals’ weeks we can observe. This is an end to
be sought not only for the sake of the animals, for also for the
sake of the child. Therein,” Micheals opined, “lies the
justification for this book as a supplementary reader,” included in
school curriculums for decades, and kept in school libraries for
even longer.
“The teacher who ignores this opportunity for character
development is, to a great degree,” Micheals concluded,
“delinquent in her duty as a promoter of true ethics.”

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