Book Review: A Widow, a Chihuahua, and Harry Truman

If you're looking for a how-to guide on raising a Chihuahua, this isn't it. If you're looking for information on the 33rd president of the United States, the buck hasn't stopped at this book.

A Widow, a Chihuahua, and Harry Truman is the kind of book that reaffirms how dogs can smother grief and self-pity with romping enthusiasm for the simplest things in life: a walk, a tasty treat, and a game with the suggestive name of "Whee!"

In her book, author Mary Beth Crain vividly describes the relentlessly searing pain when she loses her husband Adam to cancer in 1996. Five months after the funeral, and facing her first Christmas without Adam, Crain discovers a Chihuahua in a pet store. Against the judgment of friends and acquaintance ("Is not dog; is rat!" intones one such friend), Crain buys the puppy, and names him after the man she admires most: Harry S Truman. With the help of Truman the president and Truman the dog, Crain begins her journey back to life.

At this point, it's worthwhile to remember that this is not a guide to dog ownership. At the book's beginning, Crain says she does not advocate buying pets from a pet store. "The simple fact of the matter is that Truman found me," she explains. Crain also forthrightly explains her somewhat half-hearted attempts at becoming the "alpha dog" in her own home: "Quite early on in Truman's and my relationship, it became painfully evident that as far as Harry Truman's definition of leadership was concerned, I was a dismal failure."

Crain tries obedience school, but gives up after Truman looks at her with sad, mournful eyes. She tries to teach him tricks, but winds up well trained herself – she throws little wads of crumpled up paper again and again, to Truman's delight. And as for potty training, the less said the better. You can read about that yourself.

But A Widow, a Chihuahua, and Harry Truman does give perspective on how the atomic energy contained within a 3-pound puppy can yank a person out of the black hole of grief. Crain explains how she no longer could lay in bed, sleepy with depression, when her dog needed walking. Or how tough it is to remain sad when she could say one word – "whee!" – and Truman begins to jump and dance with joy.

It was during one of these frenetic sessions when Crain realized the simple magic that Truman was weaving into her life. This bright, optimistic book blends an earthy humor with poignantly honest insights.

A Widow, a Chihuahua, and Harry Truman by Mary Beth Crain. Foreword by Betty White. Harper San Francisco. Hardcover (224 p.): $22