BOOKS—Rotten, by Michael Northrop
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 2013: (Actually published on October 8, 2013)
Rotten by Michael Northrop Scholastic Books (store.scholastic.com), 2013. 256 pages, hardcover. $17.99.
As a child I was enthralled by dog stories, including Eric Knight’s Lassie, Come Home, Jack London’s Call of the Wild, and the entire Albert Payson Terhune series of books about collies. My favorite dog stories were set in different places, but had in common dog protagonists whose comfortable bourgeois lives were disrupted, pitching them, alone, into a cruel outer world. On the surface, the stories were mainly about dogs, but the larger message concerned the positive personal attributes that dogs can demonstrate to people. Decades later, I was attracted to Rotten, a book targeting adolescent readers aged 13-17, by the arresting cover––a frontal image of a Rottweiler. Rotten is narrated from the point of view of the teen protagonist “Jimmer,” also known as JD. The narrative opens with his mom meeting JD at a bus station, after he has spent the summer in “juvie” for having stolen a bottle of expensive perfume as an intended gift for her.
Mom hopes JD will be pleased with the surprise awaiting him at home––a rescue dog, the first dog they have had. Explains Mom, “I thought that he’d be good for you, and maybe you’d be good for him, and you could both get new starts.”
Johnny Rotten the Rottweiler presents himself as polite and timid, but becomes agitated in the presence of strange males. This is explained as understandable because he has in the past been abused. Soon JR bites the hand of JD’s teenaged peer Mars. Established as a shifty scofflaw with an uncertain future, Mars climbed the fence to reach JR, and approached him incautiously with hand outstretched. JR’s quick grab-and-release bite draws some blood, but requires only minimal first aid.
But Mars’ parents exploit the situation. Suddenly Mars is wearing a sling to school and complaining of tingling in his fingers. A lawsuit looms, which will not only bankrupt JD’s financially struggling mom, but–– because JR is a member of a “bully breed”––will likely mean that JR will be killed. All of this is dispassionately explained to JD and his mom by Greg, Mom’s lawyer brother, who acts on their behalf, as he has already done for JD for his theft.
“We could lose the house over this,” JD realizes. Mars’s allegations are revealed as false through the cleverness of JD’s more respectable pals, and JR’s life is spared. Boy and dog are bonded. JD is restored to favor in decent society, represented by Janie, the love interest, who serves as the novel’s moral center. Mom’s instinct to rescue a dog that would “rescue” her boy is validated.
But as a critical journalist and mother, I am struck first by Mom’s fecklessness.
Mom chose JR because he “was so sweet looking,” but this was after she was informed by the shelter that he had been designated “potentially dangerous.” This damning fact only comes out late in the book, and only because Greg dutifully checked the shelter records; Mom had not planned to reveal that she was warned of the risk the dog presented.
Mom’s failure to inquire about breed characteristics, and then her insouciance in setting off to work, leaving a new dog with a history of abuse alone with a boy who has no previous experience with dogs, is stunningly irresponsible.
Both Mom and JD derive their knowledge about dogs from TV training guru Cesar Millan and from rescue web sites that place the blame for bad dog behavior squarely on bad owners, never on breed genetics.
Says JD, “Yeah, dogs sometimes bite people, but most of the violence has been dog-on-dog.” This is true, but only half the story. A disproportionate share of that violence, JD fails to mention because he doesn’t know it, is fighting breed dog-on-dog.
The entire plot of Rotten hinges on establishing that JR’s bite did no real damage. But when Rottweilers bite (like pit bulls, to whom they are close kin), the bite is often of the grip-and-rend type that frequently causes nerve damage, and much, much worse.
Only Greg, Mom’s lawyer brother, contrasts the unfairness of stereotyping people with the absolute fairness––indeed the obligation in the case of family pets––of stereotyping dogs, since stereotypes are what line breeding exists to produce.
But Greg has no moral credibility in JD’s eyes. Indeed there are no sympathetic male adults in Rotten. JD has no father. From an easily-missed allusion, it is apparent that he never had one, and that his mother was single by choice.
The puzzlingly demonized Greg shows concern for his sister and nephew, works for JD pro bono on two occasions, and doesn’t skimp on the effort he gives both cases. He should be a good male role model for JD, who clearly needs one. No obvious reason exists for JD’s vehement scorn for him.
Except––and this is the only explanation I can see––Greg is a lawyer, and thinks like one, privileging facts over feelings.
Whatever bad legal news Greg brings JD and Mom is responded to with emotion rather than reason. This is understandable in a teenager who fears the loss of a dog he considers a victim. But Mom, who should be cajoling JD into facing reality, remains passive or supportive of JD’s anger.
One incident in Rotten might be meaningless to anyone who has not engaged with pit bull activism at its most insidious, but stood out as a red flag to me. It happens after JR has bitten Mars, but still very early in the dog’s acculturation to his new home, when everything is still new to him and well before he has bonded with JD.
Returning home from a walk, JD stumbles, and falls to his knees, startling the dog. JD’s face is mere inches from the dog’s massive jaws. Heart in mouth, JD narrates: “There’s nothing I can do. His mouth snaps open and… he licks me.”
Among the most common tropes of fighting dog advocates, one I have received countless times in e-mails after writing about pit bull mayhem, is “My pit bull won’t bite you ––but he may lick you to death.”
The implicit message is that Rottweilers, and by implication other dangerous breeds, will handily distinguish, even under stress, a righteous motivation from an inappropriate motivation for aggression. This is belied by the rapidly mounting body count of humans and animals who have been dismembered by such dogs having “accidents.”
Rotten concludes with JD buying a new collar for JR, “made of black leather and ringed with dull metal spikes.”
The dog literature I grew up with encouraged young readers to emulate the noble qualities dogs displayed in rising above their status as victims. In those stories a formerly untested dog met life’s challenges with honor. The dogs were actors in shaping their own destiny. Their triumph over adversity helped in turn to shape their readers’ moral aspirations.
What I see here is displacement of adolescent grievance onto a dog who has already been saved from victimhood when we meet him. His re-victimhood springs not from an action so much as a reflex (and a lucky one at that). JR is not saved through JD’s courage, but through the techno-cleverness of a friend. If there is a moral lesson here, it has escaped me.
Worse, Rotten may encourage families with no specialized knowledge about dogs to choose a breed unsuitable for any but experienced dog handlers.
Rotten is entertaining fiction. But unlike the fiction of Knight, London, and Terhune, which framed greater truths to the benefit of both young adults and dogs, Rotten frames only potentially dangerous untruths. ––Barbara Kay
[Barbara Kay, of Montreal, is a columnist for The National Post, flagship newspaper of the Postmedia Network.]