Though certain infamous bad dogs have recently garnered a lot of literary attention, good dogs deserve print as well, and Jon Katz has written about both kinds of canine. A New York Times bestselling author of 19 books, Katz’s list has recently been devoted to nonfiction personal narrative, and Rose in a Storm is both a tribute to a very good dog, and his return to fiction. Katz’s memoirs largely focus on navigating life with livestock and the dogs that help him manage them on his farm near Albany, and to his fans, this book will seem familiar. Mirroring his real life, the story takes place on a farm in Hebron that supports a large steer, a recalcitrant donkey, and a herd of sheep. It even features a border collie named Rose, named for a dog that, as his readers know, masterfully rides herd over the author’s menagerie. Like the real Rose, fictional Rose is an all-business canine who lives for her daily herding tasks. Caring for her owner Sam’s animals is the work of her life, but when a five-day blizzard hits, her job becomes infinitely more important—and more dangerous.
What unfolds reads like every livestock owner’s nightmare list of what-ifs. Sam, a recent widower, feels more alone than he ever has when the storm strikes, and as the snow starts piling up, normal farm life quickly unwinds. Sam struggles to keep the animals fed and watered, but when he’s badly injured and needs to be airlifted to a hospital, the animals are left largely to their own devices. That’s when Rose steps in. Unwilling to evacuate the farm along with her owner, she must find a way to keep as many animals alive as possible, whether that entails herding them to fodder, or chasing off predatory coyotes eager to rush into the caretaking breach. It’s a story that attempts to hew as closely as possible to the amazing capabilities of actual working dogs. Point of view alternates from Sam’s to Rose’s, a challenging task that Katz achieves with the advice of several animal behaviorists. His ongoing fascination and respect for the mechanisms of the working, dog mind are evident both in his memoirs and in this novel. Katz is perpetually astounded by his dogs’ ability to think in order to work, and in this book, the canine protagonist will even face down death.
Katz is a skilled writer who uses character and plot elements to best advantage to create a tense, compelling tale. Would nonanimal lovers find this book engaging? Perhaps not. Human lives are truly secondary here, mainly included as framework for the largest issues and conflicts. But what the canine main character does is nonetheless story worthy, and, maintains the author, absolutely possible. “When dogs live as they were meant to live,” Katz states in the book’s promotional material, “their minds and emotions change and are opened up in sometimes very dramatic ways.” Apparently, he also believes the loyalty, intelligence, and generosity exhibited by Rose lurks untapped in many an average house pet. Rose’s accomplishments, says Katz, are things any dog leading a “natural” life can do.
Though its highest appeal will be for dog enthusiasts, Rose in a Storm offers a gripping tale. Whether or not the abilities displayed by the furry protagonist actually exist in the breast of the average Fido, the human/animal connection seen here is something most can only imagine, and a few lucky souls (Katz among them) get to witness.