One of the most important things someone will tell you when you write a story is “write what you know”. And it is basically true, a writer takes life-experiences and the feeling generated from these life experiences and puts them down on paper, as either a testimonial to what they went through, or to piece together their own understanding of the situation in a therapeutic light.
The latter is how we came upon the book “Shiloh” written by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor.
She came up with the idea for the book when upon visiting friends in West Virginia, Naylor and her husband came upon an ill, mistreated, sickly dog which haunted her conscience until finally writing the book based on that dog. Unlike the dog in the story though, a loving family adopted that dog Naylor and her husband found and named it Clover. Now getting back to the book at hand; sitting down, you think it is your proto-typical midwestern “boy and his dog” book, which are also the same thread you find in other books like “Where The Red Fern Grows” and “Sounder”.
And you would be right. They tend to follow the same dark, gritty, Appalachian-themed tones design to challenge young readers with its emotional and social dilemmas of judeo-christian decision-making. How good and honest should you really be to save someone and in the attempt to save that person’s life, lying and stealing can still be considered justifiable if the intent is pure and good?
Let’s take a look into the story and find out.
Chapter One of the book starts off around the family dinner table where Marty, our main character and protagonist, is eating dinner with his family of roasted rabbit that his father shot. The father is a hunter, (other than what they do career-wise for a living is never mentioned for some reason nor that is it ever explained) and properly has given his son training and rules not just about handling shooting rifles, but the rules regarding hunting regulations in West Virginia.
This is important later on in the story.
The children Marty, his sister Dara Lynn and Becky, are picking at the meal despite their mother’s disgust. Lovely still, while they are sitting around eating the rabbit the topic of dinner conversation is whether or not the rabbit’s head was shot clean off. Well, I guess it’s better than eating rabbit AFTER helping gut and clean the things. Believe me I know.
After dinner, Marty goes out to take a walk around the forest when he comes across the dog (unnamed for the moment) along the old Shiloh Schoolyard. Therefore, is where the reader gets where the name came from. Marty sees that right away the dog is skittish and starved from lack of food. Not to mention cuts and bruises on the dog. Almost at once, Marty looks upon the dog with pity and boom-the friendship between the All-American genetic kid and cute little dog is cemented.
Later on in the story, both the main characters and the reader discover that the dog Shiloh is owned by no other than the “antagonist” Judd Trevors an alcoholic man who abuses his hunting dogs. With the target audience for this book not just animal-lovers but dog lovers especially, you right away hate this man and hope he dies a slow painful death.
In fact, the next two books: Saving Shiloh and Shiloh Seasons, were due to responses from children who were upset that Judd Trevors was not punished for his crimes of animal cruelty and that it felt like he had gotten away with so much.
More on that later.
Chapter Two and Three introduce us to Judd Trevors, and set up the conflict at hand for our main protagonist. The father, although knowing full well Shiloh is being abused, takes him back to Trevors stating that it is not their dog and therefore they have no right to keep it from him.
Marty knows that not only is Shiloh being mistreated, but the other hunting dogs as well, however, one of the obstacles that keeps Marty from doing the right thing to challenge the character’s story arc is that their society has a condition of not getting involved in issues that don’t concern them, no matter how unlawful it may seem. Now this sort of thing is not at all uncommon particularly in small towns, where in some situations it’s an ideal thing. Don’t get caught up in drama. But here is the thing I always wondered, maybe it is a different time and place than when I was a kid, but in real life anyone suspected of animal abuse and cruelty would be turned over by the police, if there is clear-cut evidence of abuse being given. Much like it is for elderly and child abuse. So why not turn Trevors in to the police or heck, even the local sheriff?
There may be no Animal Control to investigate, but it is still a criminal penalty even though you do own that said pet or animal.
Heck, that is what I kept thinking was going to happen at the end of the story. But I guess that is why it’s considered fiction and not non-fiction. Keep in mind, this may be the sort of thing a young adult reader might think about when reading this book in today’s world.
Marty wants Shiloh, because he knows that Shiloh would be better in the hands of him than a drunk redneck like Judd Trevors. But being that the family is poor, the kid has not enough money to buy the dog from him. That is when after another bought of abuse, Shiloh escapes and goes to the only human that had ever loved and cared about him: Marty. Marty, this time makes a small wire pen and hides Shiloh out there sneaking in scraps of food from the dinner table to feed to the poor little beagle. The mother discovers where the leftovers have been disappearing too but agrees to keep Marty’s secret. However that night, a stray German shepherd wanders in and injures Shiloh, thus exposing Marty’s attempts to lie and deceit his way to protecting the dog.
Notice the irony of Marty worrying about Shiloh dying from the hands of abusive Judd Trevors, and yet his attempt to protect Shiloh lands the dog in the hospital. Where another character Doc Murphy is introduced. The Town Doctor. Who really has no experience working surgery on an animal which makes this part of the book a crucial moment for the reader, as they wonder whether Shiloh will miraculously live, or die because he is not getting the proper medical treatment he would otherwise get at a veterinary clinic.
Don’t worry, Shiloh lives, but Marty is now in deep trouble with his father after he finds out all that time his son was hiding Shiloh from Judd. And Marty realizes that he must return Shiloh or at least attempt to get a part-time job to raise the money to pay for his bills. As Marty heads over to Judd’s house, he sees the man shoot a doe out of season, which means Judd will have to pay a fine he can’t afford. Marty blackmail Judd Trevor into letting him work on his farm enough hours to pay for buying Shiloh in exchange for not turning him in. Trevors complies and despite after a while the contract between them becoming null and void, Marty continues to work on the farm and Judd eventually warms up to him, revealing his tragic back story that when he was a kid he was physically abused by his own father, and which is why he acted the way he did. Not only did Marty save the life of an abused animal, but also saved an abuser from going down the path of self-destruction.
Review and After Thoughts
There are many reasons why Shiloh is considered a classic, during a time in the nineties where children’s entertainment focused on the more traditional good v evil motifs to keep them excited, this book offers a more complex realistic story and a plot that many kids who have had pets or wanted pets may relate too. The dialogue is simple with its country dialect that some criticize is not authentic to West Virginia and complain that it is silly and inaccurate. But once you get past the dialogue and focus on the characters interactions with one another you get to the juicy meat of what the story is really about.
Animal Abuse is a serious crime and those who commit it I have no respect for, which is why it was easy for a lot of children to see Judd Trevors as the villain that they wish gotten what he deserved, but little what this story does is teach children that sometimes that is not always the easy choice. Sometimes the villains are more than what we perceive and in the case involving abuse it opens their eyes into how muddled the pattern of abuse-abuser becomes. And unlike other stories with bad guys who are just written as bad guys for the sake of being something for the good guy to fight. We get something more from the villain in this story and realize he is not really bad but not misunderstood either.
The parents of Marty have their part in his conflicted moral story. One-the mother: serving on the side of God’s law of truth and honesty, and the father: stern in his right-wing morals but does so because of his love for his son and wants to encourage him to the right thing within reason. Marty does not take one side over the other nor he is unbiased between them. He balances and uses their advice both in consideration to decide what he should do in Shiloh’s best interest. And even when he feels that one is unclear and the other is shady. He doesn’t put the blame on his parents. Which is something that kids can take away from the book.
If your child doesn’t find the whole “boy from a rural backwoods state and his dog” story dull and predictable, the animal-lover in them will like this book for its complex characters, heartwarming story, and a moral that makes them think and challenge their intellectual problem-solving skills.