Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Review and Interview: Scent of the Missing: Love and Partnership with a Search-and-Rescue Dog by Susannah Charleson

Scent of the Missing: Love and Partnership with a Search-and-Rescue Dog 

Highly recommended.

A few years ago, inspired by reading stories and seeing pictures of search and rescue dogs after 9-11, Hurricane Katrina, and other disasters, I decided to take my two dogs in to give blood.  But I felt that it wouldn't be fair to make them give blood if I wasn't willing to do it myself, so I went in to the local blood bank and donated first.  It turns out that one of my dogs, Lulubelle, was a "universal recipient" blood type that wasn't useful as a donor and the other, Roscoe, a very intelligent and very neurotic whippet mix couldn't give blood because the vet had put him on OCD medication.  So, while I've been giving blood every few months since that time, both my dogs managed to skate. 

Susannah Charleson saw the same stories and photos I saw, but she -- a flight instructor with experience flying disaster searches -- was inspired to go out and volunteer.  She joined her local search and rescue team.  Scent of the Missing is the story of her work with team in Dallas, Texas, and of Puzzle, the dog she adopted and trained to be her partner.

Early in the book, Charleson tells a story that seems to be almost an urban myth of dog handlers.  a new Search and Rescue (SAR) prospect training his first dog is on a training exercise in an abandoned building, searching for a single "victim" hidden somewhere inside.  During an extensive search of the building the dog shows interest only in a pile of old leaves, too small to hide a person underneath.  The handler pulls the dog off the leaves and goes on with the search of the building, but several times the dog returns to the leaves.  Each time, the handler pulls him off.  Finally, in frustration, the handler begins searching boxes and looking for clues to the victim himself.  The exercise ends in failure.  Afterwards, during the de-briefing, the trainer asks if the dog showed interest in anything in the building.  Nothing at all, the handler says, except for a pile of leaves.  The trainer leads  the handler back into the building and brushes aside the pile of leaves.  Underneath the leaves is a storm drain, and beneath the storm drain the "victim" crouches, waiting to be found.  This story, Charleson assures us, is heard in many forms among dog handlers, but the moral is always the same.

Trust your dog.

That message comes through powerfully in her book, both in the dramatic stories of rescues in the field, where the dog's remarkable abilities are literally the difference between life and death, and in the everyday stories of raising a puppy and living in a multi-animal household.  Trust your dog.  And listen.  Always listen.

"I suppose I'm always trying to see the world through someone else's condition," Charleson says, "Human and animal alike -- and with an animal, it's all about paying attention and reading behaviors in motion."

Puzzle, a Golden Retriever,  comes to Susannah as a wild, energetic puppy whose boundless energy is almost too much for both his human and animal housemates.  Spirited, self-involved Puzzle, is often too much for the dogs and cats in the home, but develops a special relationship with old blind Pomeranian Scuppy, an ancient dog who navigates the world confidently by scent and sound, and from whom Puzzle seems to learn much .  The descriptions of the household are one of the joys of this book, and anyone who has shared their home with dogs will find much that is familiar here.

But Scent is also the story of Puzzle's development into a search and rescue dog.  And it is full of stories -- from brief vignettes to full narratives -- of the searches her SAR team conducts.  It is the nature of the work to present high-drama situations  and Charleson shows a knack for capturing people in brief, vivid portraits, and taking us into the emotion and jeopardy of the searches.  I asked her about her writing experience:

"My writing background is in journalism and media, primarily, though I did co-author historical fiction (pirate fiction!) for six years on AOL, and that was a great exercise in long story arcs and writing adventurous prose.

"Writing and working search have a great deal in common. Both demand that you pay attention to your surroundings -- pay 'close' attention -- and make sense of what you see. Author Henry James tells writers to 'notice everything,' and I think that advice, which I remember from a college literature class thirty years ago, really resonates with me in everyday life. It's about keeping your eyes open and taking nothing for granted, in the search field and out of it. And there's head sense and heart sense. Head sense informs our work in the search field. Heart sense helps me imagine how a lost person might feel in a certain context, and later, helps me translate the deeper things about this work to the page."

That close attention to detail is  evident everywhere in this book.  As is a strong feeling for language, plot and character.

"I was the elementary school kid that maxed out the library card weekly (our town had a limit on how many books could be checked out at once).  I read Gone With the Wind when I was in second grade. I know there were adult themes in it I missed, but I remember startling my doctor by quoting the first line of the book at him during a routine exam. ('Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply blended ... ' etc. etc.).

"Certainly poets Wordsworth, T.S. Eliot, Adrienne Rich and authors Evelyn Waugh, Patrick O'Brian, Margaret Atwood, James Herriot, Michael Perry and Alice Munro are influential. Beryl Markham's amazing West with the Night still comes back to me, though I've only read it once. I read Jonathan Safran Foer and Jonathan Miles with great interest, too.

"Patricia McConnell very kindly said about Scent of the Missing she didn't know whether she wanted to 'read the book or eat it,' because of the use of language (which was a happy thing), but I know I have a lot of sensory conflict about literature, too. I realized recently that I'm very interested in learning to read by Braille. I think it would be amazing to connect with literature that way -- all that lovely language coming up through the fingertips."

The representation of animals in books and other media is one of our major themes at Books and Beasts, which is why I thought Scent of the Missing would be a great book to start our blog.  Charleson's depictions of animals -- of working dogs in the field, and of a busy household of dogs and cats -- ring true in a very deep way.  Her animals feel like animals, even when she reaches for an empathic understanding of how they see the world and how they feel.  She's not afraid to make that leap, while being careful to give the animals there own voices.

"The job is not to anthropomorphize, of course, but the equal job for a writer is not to deny animals some gifts or traits we humans possess, simply because we humans possess them. I think it's a little arrogant to assert that a dog can't feel compassion or think critically or whatever, simply because a human can. And I see waaaay too many dogs demonstrating both to believe they don't possess those gifts."

What Charelson captures, as well as any writer I know, is the ancient partnership between humans and working dogs -- a partnership older than recorded history and still vital and important in the 21st century.

"The greatest satisfactions come from seeing companion and partner animals thrive happily in their working and home lives -- whatever job they have: search, service, therapy, or simply being pets (which is a valuable contribution, too). And of course, it's wonderful to see a working dog who's very, very good at what (s)he does. I think the biggest challenge is being open to how they communicate. It's easy to close your eyes to what they're telling you in any given situation, blinded by what you 'expect' to see. (Ex. My last dog asked to go out THIS way. Therefore all dogs will ask to go out THIS way.) Animals are as variable as any human. I have one dog who moans when she wants a treat, one who sits beneath the treat drawer and blink-blink-blinks in petition. And another who play-bows. And play-bows. And play-bows. And they all want the same thing! Animals have a lot of things to tell us, and a communication style unique to their individual personalities. That's the beauty, the challenge, and the opportunity of working beside them. I feel blessed with the chance to do so."

Trust your dog.  Listen closely.  And make sure that your dog can trust you.

Related Reading
Highly Recommended

According to her official author bio, Virginia Lanier was born in 1930 and didn't publish her first novel until she was 65.  She wrote -- as far as I know -- only six mystery novels and one novella in her far too short career.  Her first was Death in Bloodhound Red in 1996 (HarperTorch) , a stylish, character driven Southern mystery set in the Okefenokee swamp and featuring kennel owner and Bloodhound trainer Jo Beth Sidden.  It was followed by five more novels -- The House on Bloodhound Lane (1997), A Brace of Bloodhounds (1998), Blind Bloodhound Justice (1999), Ten Little Bloodhounds (2000), and her final novel, published in 2003, A Bloodhound To Die For, a book which affected me so deeply when I read it that I still can't even think of its title without tears.  These are far and away the best dog-related mystery novels I have ever read -- rich in the atmosphere of time and place, driven by compelling characters and relationships, and full of lore about Bloodhounds and the people who love them.  They aren't your typical whodunits, with a crime in the first couple of chapters which the lead character spends the rest of the book investigating.  Rather, these are episodic, character driven stories, full of vivid descriptions of searches, dog training, and entertainingly tangled personal relationships.  But best of all, these books contain one of the truly great canine characters in American Fiction -- blind-from-birth Bloodhound Bobby Lee, a dog of remarkable abilities and Jo Beth's one true love.  Sadly, Virginia Lanier died in 2003 at the age of 72.  A final Jo Beth story was published posthumously in an anthology Bark M for Murder in 2006. If you love this tragically short series even half as much as I do, it won't be nearly enough.
Death in Bloodhound RedThe House on Bloodhound LaneTen Little BloodhoundsA Bloodhound To Die ForBark M For MurderBlind Bloodhound JusticeA Brace of Bloodhounds (Jo Beth Sidden, No. 3)