Before you get a scent of prejudice in this story, I'm here to tell you my parents owned a pit-bull terrier 50 years ago. That dog was my best friend.
Secondly, I want you to know I wrote a Seattle Times column 15 years ago about Diane Jessup and her duck-herding pit bull, named Dread, who became what was believed to be the world's first herding American pit-bull terrier. Dread placed third in an Australian Shepherd Club of America stock-dog trial.
Conversely, I'm not a huge fan of pet fiction. With that established, you should know that Jessup's first novel (hopefully there are more to come), The Dog Who Spoke With Gods (St. Martin's Press, $22.95), is an exhilarating portrayal of the oft-indicted breed and one dog's relationship with his best friend and rescuer.
With infinite detail, the author thinks like a dog one minute and an owner the next. Maybe that's because she has worked with both for more than a quarter century, having written two nonfiction works on the breed, and appearing on CBS's 48 Hours and Oprah as an expert on canine behavior.
She has also served as director of the Canine Aggression Research Center in Olympia, Wash., and as an animal-control officer in Olympia for 16 years. She has seen canines inside out – as cherished family pets and owner rejects.
Jessup is involved in pit-bull rescue, taking dogs from all corners of the country, rehabilitating them and placing them in "special homes that want special pets." In the process, she orients them to dog sports such as weight pulling, tracking, obedience and agility. "It's a good deal all around," she says.
As I maneuvered through the 362-page volume, I seldom had the feeling this was a novel. The characters come to life from the outset and I found myself pulling for Damien, a true underdog and a work-in-progress throughout.
Set in western Washington, Jessup's home turf, the story begins with Damien, a sturdy pit bull, roaming the Olympic Mountain Range, where Viktor Hoffman, a university research biologist, is studying the life cycle of feral dogs. Hoffman is injured in a fall, becomes disoriented and is led back to his camp by the 62-pound dog. There, the two part company, but only for a while.
On a return trip to the area, Hoffman traps Damien and places a tracking collar around his neck. That almost proves fatal for the animal, since it interferes with his ability to nab prey. Within 15 days, Damien loses 8 pounds.
But the worst is yet to come. In hot pursuit of a small animal who scampers for a cave, Damien becomes trapped at the entrance for several days, unable to maneuver his head and neck out of the tiny quarters, until Hoffman and several of his students discover him.
Injured and malnourished, the dog is transported to the university. Hoffman and another zealous animal behaviorist, named Thomas Seville, subject our canine hero to numerous research experiments.
In steps Elizabeth Fletcher, a pre-med student who begins working in the research facility as a handler. She quickly falls in love with the once-proud pit bull that is starved for affection. Before she meets Damien, Elizabeth never had given the fate of research dogs a thought. In fact, her father, a doctor, used them for years.
She quickly becomes dismayed at the treatment of Damien, as the behaviorists seek to convert the dog's onetime independence to subservience with the use of a shock collar. Damien survives months of torture with grace and dignity, never becoming vicious but living for his daily secret get-togethers with Elizabeth. This, however, quickly presents the gritty Elizabeth with a dilemma – whether to risk her fast-approaching entry into medical school by helping free Damien.
The bulk of the captivating novel focuses on her attempt to stay several steps ahead of the tunnel-vision researchers. In the process, she teaches Damien how to "talk" (yes, that's right) several human words and when Seville hears this, he sees the animal as his ticket to an international conference, where he hopes to upstage a longtime peer and critic and gain notoriety in the process.
Gradually, Elizabeth and Damien are becoming soul mates, which Jessup characterizes, "Damien's love for Elizabeth was becoming the pure love of a good dog for the one it chooses to follow. It came from a clean, deep desperate place in his soul, and it burned like a physical thing."
But one thing is missing – ownership. Damien belongs to the university's Animal Resources Department and his caretakers, using the word loosely, are Hoffman and Seville.
With these conflicting interests, Seville and Elizabeth find themselves in the midst of a combustible relationship throughout, both coveting something the other possesses – for Elizabeth, a chance to openly bond with Damien outside of the research environment, and for Seville, the dog's love and respect, which he offers only to Elizabeth.
Jessup's plot is a cloak-and-dagger thriller in the open. Witness a botched animal-liberation group's attempt to grab Damien from Seville's home; serious injuries to the dog in the process; the animal's eventual escape; a $25,000 award for its return.
Doesn't this sound like something you might read about in the newspaper just about any day? Keep in mind, this isn't just another pet novel. It speaks in practical terms, yet is accented with ideological overtones, of our relationship with the dog.
"My primary message," said Jessup in an interview, "is that it is OK to love your dog back the way your dog loves you. The depth of feeling possible between dog and human is awesome and it should be respected." Mission accomplished.
For Jessup, the novel work has been a longtime commitment. "I got the idea when I was about 15. I worked on it in a kid's way for years, then really didn't do much until four or five years ago. It took five years, just writing winter evenings.
"I wrote it for fun because I liked to try and evoke emotion with words and play with words. A novel sure is different than nonfiction – more like your baby – you let people see inside you. Kinda scary stuff."