Once a Dog, by Shaune Lafferty Webb – Book Review by Fred Patten

by Pup Matthias

Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.

Once a Dog, by Shaune Lafferty Webb.
Capalaba, Qld, Australia, Jaffa Books, May 2018, trade paperback, $17.00 (319 pages), Kindle $4.15.

Once a Dog is told from the viewpoint of Jesse B. Collie, a young dog on the farm of Mister Overlord. He is no longer a puppy, but he is still too young to be trained to work like Mother, an experienced sheepdog, so he romps happily around the farmyard with his littermates Lil, Zac, Pixie, and Toby. Mister and Missus Overlord are too busy to play with him, but Oldmister Overlord – Mister Overlord’s father, now retired – plays fetch and other games with him.

The first chapter establishes the dogs’ vocabulary. The sun and moon are hot-ball and cold-ball; day and night are bright-light and slight-light; humans are uprights; dogs are packers; sheep are dumbfluffs; barnyard fowls are jumpfly-gabblegabbles, and so on.

One night there is a commotion in the farmhouse, and the next day Oldmister Overlord does not come out to play with Jesse. The reader can tell that he has died the night before, but Jesse only knows that he does not come out any more. Maybe he went away in the strange rolling-house (an ambulance or hearse) that came that night. When Mister and Missus Overlord soon leave in Truck, and Missus Overlord doesn’t close the farm gate tightly, Jesse sets out to follow them and find Oldmister Overlord. They lead him farther than he expects, into the nearby small town which has a bewildering confusion of uprights.

“He had made a big mistake and strayed into hostile territory. And for that, there was only one solution. He’d just have to try harder to smell his way out. So he lowered his nose to the ground, but that prompted an immediate sneeze. Just as he’d feared, the jumble of smells was awfully confusing. And he couldn’t trust his hearing all that well, either. His desperate attempts to single out the unique frequency of any one upright among the discordant sounds around him failed repeatedly, leaving him no choice but to continue down the road almost completely exposed and defenseless. Those packers who had signed at the bush [dogs that had urinated on a bush] had passed this way, too; he could still smell them sure enough.” (p. 29)

Jesse tracks Mister and Missus Overlord into the church where Oldmister Overlord’s funeral is being held. Mister Overlord leads Jesse into Truck (it’s the first time he’s ever been in Truck; he likes the wind blowing through his fur even more than playing ball with Oldmister) and drives him home. Jesse tells his siblings the exciting things that he saw and did, and when Zac doesn’t believe him, he jumps over the fence to prove it to Zac.

“With a loud sigh, Jesse turned around again and began the trek uphill to join his brother. Once at the top of the rise, he sat, dropped the ball to the ground by his paws and studied the way ahead. There it was again – that field with all those identical and evenly spaced tree stumps in the valley below.

‘Oh, that,’ Jesse said, feigning disinterest although he was in fact elated at having remembered the way after all. A shiver ran down his spine, setting his hair on end. ‘It’s nothing. There’s no one in that field. I already looked.’

‘There is!’ Zac snapped. ‘The rolling-house that just passed us went inside. It’s over there now, beside that small house at the back of the field.’” (p. 53)

Then, with the beginning of Chapter 4 on page 61, the novel takes a completely unexpected turn that I can’t reveal without giving away a gigantic spoiler! I will just say that Jesse is thrown into a very confusing situation.

“‘[…] Personally, I think you’re a fine fellow, who through no fault of your own, became caught up in an unfortunate circumstance.’

Jesse had no clue what the one-eyed packer was talking about. He pawed at the ground in frustration.

‘Let me put it to you directly, then,’ Scratcher said, rolling onto his paws. ‘Do you stand for or against the amendment?’

Jesse’s knees threatened to buckle again and something inside his stomach began to somersault. ‘I don’t even understand it.’


‘What’s happening?’ Jesse whimpered.

‘Revolution,’ the big hound replied, then jerked his head around to survey each ridge, long ears swinging unrestrained. ‘Those who support the amendment and those who oppose it are about to engage in battle. We’re better off here.’ He turned to Jesse. ‘Unless you want to take a side.’

Who, me?’ Jesse howled. ‘This is your fight,’ he said, turning to Scratcher. ‘I want nothing to do with it.’

‘Too late for that,’ Sherlock replied. We’re all in it now.’

Jesse planted his rear on the ground. ‘I have no intention of fighting for something I don’t even understand,’ he snapped.

The big hound’s brow lifted. ‘Good Havens, little fellow, did you think I meant we should get in there and scrap with the rest of them? No, no. I simply meant that we will be at the mercy of whichever side wins the day.’” (pgs. 178-181)

Once a Dog (cover by Lew Viergacht) has an ending that is impossible to guess in advance. The title is part of a phrase continuously cited: “Once a dog, always a dog”. Don’t believe it.

Fred Patten

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