The Leanin’ Dog

by K. A. Nuzum
ages: 8-12
First sentence: “I shoved my braids up into my woolen cap, pulled the itchy thing farther down over my ears and crossed to the cabin window.”

Have you ever noticed how prevalent dead/crazy/absent moms are in kids literature? Me either, until I started reading a bunch for the Cybils. Sherry over at Semicolon was curious about the idea after one of our panel’s chats, and made up a list of all the books with missing — dead or otherwise — moms. There’s quite a few.

Add this one to the list. (Actually, is the second out of three that I’ve read with dead moms in the last week — the other two are Estella Revenge books — and so, I have to admit up front, that colored my opinion of this one. I’m heartily tired of dead moms.)

Dessa Dean lives with her father up in the mountains. He’s a trapper, and she’s an only child. Her mother used to live with them, but she and Dessa Dean got caught out in an early-winter blizzard and Dessa watched her mother freeze to death. That obviously traumatized Dessa: she’s discovered in the time since that she can’t leave the cabin. She’s lonely and sad, and subject to both night- and daymares. Then one day, a wounded dog come scratching at the door when Dessa’s home alone. She takes a liking to the dog, who, slowly, helps Dessa not only through the tough first Christmas without her mother but to begin to heal from the tragedy.

Dead mom aside, I liked how this book felt. For something that deals with death and tragedy so directly (not to mention the general harshness of life alone in the mountains), it was a fairly positive book. I really liked Dessa’s voice; I liked her general determined nature (her stubborn streak, as she put it), but also just the way she looked at things. She’d spend her days doing school work: making up sentences for spelling words or making up math problems. As the book went on, the school work took on a life of its own: how many steps it takes to get to the door, how many times you can pet a dog before she wakes up. I also liked Dessa’s quest to find the dog’s true name. The dog-girl relationship was a sweet one, and I really liked the way Nuzum wrote the dog; it didn’t speak, but rather Nuzum wrote noises and body language so that I could really picture how the dog was acting.

So, in the end, I guess it was a pretty good dead mom book. One that I think kids going through some kind of tragedy could relate to, and possibly others would enjoy as well.

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