What is a lie? Is it every appropriate to tell one? What if the lie is meant to help a helpless creature? What if the lie will save the life of the dog you love, especially if that dog is a cute little beagle owned by the drunk and abusive Judd Travers? These are all questions 11-year-old Marty Preston must wrestle with in this story of boy-dog bonding and growing up.
Set in backwoods West Virginia,Shilohincludes a wealth of detail about the lives of the rural poor. This isn't the kind of "everything's fine as long as you have each other" idealistic novel often written for kids, though it isn't the sordid account of everything bad that can possibly exist in a child's world, either.
Marty is followed home by a bedraggled dog one day, decides to keep it, and names him Shiloh after the local schoolhouse. Since the dog belongs to next door neighbor Judd Travers, however, Marty's dad tells his son to return the dog. Marty complies, but he does so with a heavy heart—he knows Judd is mean, and he can tell Shiloh has been mistreated.
So when Shiloh comes back to Marty, the boy decides to keep the dog hidden, kept from Judd, his parents, and even his best friend, David Howard. On many occasions, Marty goes hungry in order to bring scraps to the dog, nursing him from near-death to health and happiness.
Things go all wrong when a German Shepherd attacks Shiloh in the cage Marty makes for him and the Preston's discover what Marty has been up to. He's forced to take the dog back to Judd again, but just as he arrives he sees Judd poach a deer out of season. Marty uses this information to blackmail Judd into selling him the dog, but instead of money Judd agrees to accept several hours of labor in exchange for Shiloh.
Of course, Judd reneges when the time comes, but as Marty continues to work for him, gradually the harsh and unpleasant man is softened and a friendship forms. Eventually Judd reveals that his father violently abused him as a boy, repents of his treatment of his hunting dogs, gives Shiloh to Marty, and becomes a decent guy.
Elements ofShilohseem a bit unlikely (such as the fact that Marty, born and bred in West Virginia, can't stomach killing animals for food), but overall the novel is very realistic. The relationship between Marty and his dog is tender and surprisingly free of sentimentality, and the human relationships ring true.
All except one. Judd Travers is cartoonish as a drunken, brooding bully, but that's not the bad part. The bad part is that Judd's bad behavior is explained away and forgiven solely in virtue of his troubled past. Fathers abusing their children is certainly evil and disgusting, but we are all responsible for our own sin and can hardly get by with lawbreaking and abuse because we were victims.
Is it likely that Marty would bring out the best in Judd? No, especially since there's no one with a heart of gold (we are all born in trespasses and sin). At the same time, Naylor acknowledges the possibility of redemption, which we absolutely affirm, though she looks for it in the wrong place.
This issue is overshadowed, however, by the realism of Marty's many moral dilemmas. Marty genuinely wrestles with the right thing to do, and sometimes he makes the right decision and sometimes he doesn't. These internal struggles offer many opportunities for parents and kids to discuss important questions of morality and conscience.
If you're looking for a perfect book, this one isn't it. While largely realistic, Naylor's depictions of human nature are uneven, and not all of the images she presents of West Virginia culture ring true. At the same time,Shilohis a great adventure story about a boy and his dog, and one that will make kids do more thinking than many books like it.
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