“To Dance With the White Dog”
Author: Terry Kay
Publisher: Peachtree Publishers
From time to time in this space I consider a book that is not brand new. Not too long ago, for example, I talked about “The Keepers of the House” by Shirley Ann Grau, which had won the Pulitzer Prize.
Recently I learned that the distinguished Georgia novelist Terry Kay was to visit Rainsville, Alabama. Kay has published 17 novels, three of which have been made into TV movies. He has won an Emmy, received the Georgia Governor’s Humanities Award and been inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame, among many other honors.
Kay was to talk about his 1990 breakthrough novel, “To Dance With the White Dog,” made into a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie starring Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, and to my shame I had never read it.
I have now and it is splendid, emotionally powerful, without turning to goo.
“White Dog” is set in 1973 in Hart County, northeast Georgia, on a tree nursery. Eighty-one-year-old Sam Peek has just buried Cora, his wife of 57 years. Sam is now alone, except for his sons and daughters and their spouses and their children, who all love him, are worried about him and keep up a constant, affectionate and irritating presence.
Can he manage alone? He thinks he can. He means to, even though he learns that daily household chores like making biscuits are a little more complicated than he thought.
Sam is in emotional distress and has a bad hip. He needs pills from the druggist to ease the pain and help him sleep, so he is uncertain when he sees, or thinks he sees “at the edge of the yard, against the wheat-brown of broom sedge in the unplanted field…a flash of white, low against the ground.”
But the next morning he sees the white dog plainly. She is starving, “belly thin, ribs showing in its ribcage.” Sam thinks of himself as a tough old bird. He tries to shoo the dog away, yells at her, contemplates putting her out of her misery, but then he crumbles a day-old biscuit onto leftover oatmeal, pours bacon grease over the lot and sets the bowl on the back porch. Soon, they are bonded: the dog “dances” with Sam, her front paws on his walker.
But, remaining shy, the white dog never appears when others are around, and soon Sam’s sons and daughters have suspicions that the old man is failing, losing his mind.
He’s not, but just for fun and a kind of revenge, he talks to the dog when she is NOT there, pets an imaginary space, generally makes his kids crazy.
Sam, far from weak-minded, keeps a perceptive daily journal, where, not surprisingly, a good deal of the wisdom and the tenderness of this book is found. Writing sincerely, not for anyone else’s eyes, he recalls events from the past, remembering the raising of the children, his wife’s constant affection for him and others.
“On the day she died,” Sam writes, “she had been at the rest home sitting with the ‘old’ people.”
Cora and Sam had met at college and were to attend their 60th reunion together.
Sam decides he will go anyway, in his old truck, accompanied only by his white dog, and we see that the stubborn, proud old man is not as sharp, not as capable, as he thought he was.
The dog? The dog is real. The dog is a ghost dog. The dog is Cora, come back to keep Sam company in his final days.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.