Book Review: “Strays: A Woman, a Dog and the Timeless Wisdom of Nature” By Jeanne Webster
By Mary Ickes
Strays invokes images of animals desperately seeking safe refuge, but Ms. Webster’s first novel, an engaging fable, concerns a young woman searching for a peaceful haven. Jane Morgan’s post-college dream of struggling to writing success, amidst an Atlanta loft community of equally determined artists and writers, disintegrated into editing mundane newspaper articles, a small but expensive apartment, and a handsome, domineering boyfriend. Laid off from her job, Jane, age 24, fled Atlanta’s noisy confusion for the Smoky Mountains to … reevaluate everything – life, love, career, [and] her faith …
As her story opens, Jane, with a large bump on her head, regains consciousness in a parking lot. She gradually recalls that she stumbled on steps leading to an overlook, and then, in rapid succession, each miserable detail leading her to the overlook. Frustrated anew, she yells, “I’m still mad at You, God, … if You won’t show me the way, I’ll find my own way.”
“I’ll help you,” a voice declares. To confirm that she is not crazy by not hearing a reply, Jane asks for the speaker’s location. “Right here … below the handrail in my silk.” At a tiny spider’s cordial welcome, Jane speeds away to the emergency room for a thorough evaluation of her head injury. The next morning, to again prove her sanity by not hearing voices, she returns to the park where the spider happily greets her, “Welcome back, I knew you would come.” The spider introduces herself as the Grandmother Spider assigned to record Jane’s life with her web. The holes and dangling ends, she explains, represent goals and dreams that Jane sacrificed to other people’s opinions.
Grandmother Spider promises Jane that an escort will lead her to crucial knowledge. Grateful to Grandmother Spider, even if she is a hallucination, and feeling hopeful for the first time in years, Jane imagines her angelic escort … with lovely iridescent wings, glowing and beautiful to behold.
While eating lunch on her porch, one of the … scruffiest, dirtiest dogs imaginable greets her. Reluctantly opening the door, Jane grumbles, “It’s you, isn’t it? … My escort?”
“Geeze, I’m not that bad … I know I haven’t had a bath lately, but I’ve been on my own for a while,” the dog answered. Ashamed, Jane explains that she expected a more divine guide. “Ah, the Angel wish,” he mutters.
Max, the name he requests, immediately addresses crucial issues. First, since canines have guided indigenous people for centuries, a dog guide (the term he prefers over escort) is perfectly reasonable. Next, Jane and her family did not own their farm dogs. Loyal and true, the dogs chose to stay with them; conversely, cats stay with people because “… they are tall enough to reach cabinets and have the fingers and thumbs to open a tuna can.” Then, in answer to Jane’s questions, he discusses people’s misconception that money is life’s sole currency, the difference between knowing and understanding, and time perception. Sensitive to her fears, Max assures Jane that she is one of many strays who will begin finding their way when they recognize and appreciate their gifts.
Sensing his loneliness, Jane invites Max to live with her. Assured that she does not have a cat, Max accepts. His two-hour bath appeases Jane’s sense of smell, and a bag of fresh bones amply atones for Jane’s rudeness. As the weeks pass, Max proves a discerning guide by answering Jane’s questions or leading her to appropriate teachers.
Strays, Reading Friends, is not a plot driven novel careening to a jolting conclusion. The only suspense element is whether Jane will pass the test when applying her new knowledge to old problems. (Max hides in the house when the first question arrives.) Neither are Jane’s lessons new or startling information, but familiar to everyone asking similar questions.
The depth and beauty of Strays emanates from how Jane learns about life through teachers ranging from gruff and charming to dangerous and cheeky. Since much of the story’s appeal stems from encountering each mentor, I will let readers meet them with Jane.
Each aspect of Strays enhances the overall theme of Oneness between nature and humanity. Grandfather Mountain, Clingman’s Dome, and similar landmarks ground readers in the setting. As Jane follows Max through the forest, she begins noticing nature’s delicate beauty: The wet plants and bushes seemed to gain intensity, and Jane thought she had never seen so many shades of emerald in her life … It was like walking through some fairy cave filled with sparkling gems. Though enchanted by the legends her teachers relate, Jane recognizes each as a precious link between civilizations long gone and her generation.
As fables must, characters represent the problems and quandaries of humanity in general. Each question Jane poses, therefore, is one that a reader or, more likely, readers seek to answer. Finally, fables must also teach or illustrate moral lessons leading to a universal truth which, in this case, is that … strays are where animals, nature, and spirit connect.
Jeanne Webster is an author, speaker, and columnist who niches in teen and young adult issues, life transitions, purpose work, and the spiritually integrated life. As a professional life coach, Jeanne has been working with young people since 1989. Her first book, If You Could Be Anything, What Would You Be? was published in 2004 and garnered the prestigious iParenting Award and USA Best Books Award for the young adult category. After finishing a children’s series, she will concentrate solely on the sequel to Strays in which Max braves a storm to save a tiny kitten.
Want more information? Visit StraysTheBook.com or email the author at Jeanne-Web@yahoo.com.
Buddy, T.C.P.E. (Tuxedo Cat Par Excellence), email@example.com
Replacing my picture this month is the business card of Diana Hayes, last month’s author, because someone, whom I shall graciously permit to remain nameless, did not forward her contact information with the final draft. Just in case that someone forgets to forward the card to editor Sandi, Ms. Hayes may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.