Set in rural West Virginia, this book tells the story of eleven-year-old Marty who befriends a run-away dog (Shiloh) whom he suspects is being abused by its owner (Judd Travers). His father makes him return the dog, knowing that the law will undoubtedly side with Judd, an abused dog is not the same as an abused child and the potential backlash to their family argues against fighting a lost cause. Marty tells Judd that he will bring Shiloh back if he finds him again. However, when Shiloh returns, Marty hides him in a pen on his father’s land and sneaks food to him.
This secret causes Marty to lie to his parents, two younger sisters, friends and neighbors, one lie leading to another. When Shiloh is nearly killed by a bear while trapped in Marty’s pen, the secret is revealed, causing problems between his parents and embarrassment for his family. Although Marty is forced to return Shiloh, he is determined to get the dog back. At the end of the book, Marty sees Judd kill a doe while hunting out of season. Marty convinces Judd to sell the dog to him by threatening to report Judd to the police.
Throughout the book, Marty understands fully that his dishonesty is wrong and will have serious consequences for his family. He consistently rationalizes his behavior to himself because he wants to keep Shiloh, even when he sees the problems this causes his parents. When his father learns about the lies, he insists that Marty own up to them. However, his parents never actually punish Marty for lying and keeping secrets that affect their entire family. Marty never tells his parents that he has blackmailed Judd despite the fact the he knows his silence may endanger other deer.
Serious moral issues are handled in an ambiguous manner in this book. The author uses the “rights” of one dog to justify insincerity and blackmail, as well as a disregard for the rights of parents, for private property, for respect for the law and for the environment, represented by the deer population. This scenario plays on the sympathies of the intended audience, whose development may not be ready for such a complex moral dilemma even with adult guidance. As a result, young readers are given the impression that lying, even to one’s parents, is sometimes OK, if there is a “good” reason. Parents looking for a wonderful book that demonstrates the humane treatment of dogs without coarse language and ethical confusion might consider Big Red by Jim Kjelgaard. At the same time, Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls, while it does have a sad ending, features a family very similar to that of Marty’s.
Jennifer Minicus is a mother and teacher living in Ridgewood, NJ.