When the mixed breed puppies are born, the is a runt among that is about to die, but Stanley saves him and named him Soldier after his brother Tom. His father's anger has become explosive and one day he gives Rocket's puppies, except for Soldier, to some tinkers camping nearby. Then one morning, Stanley wakes to find Soldier and his Da gone. Fearing the worst, he races after them, but by the time he gets to the lake, his father standing there - alone.
Hurt and angered beyond measure, Stanly, now 14, decides to lie and enlist in the army so he can be sent to France to find his brother. It is clear the Stanley is much to young for combat, but he manages to get on his Sergeant's wrong side. But he also meets Scots-born brother Hamish and James McManus, who take him under their wing. One day, Hamish shows Stanley a notice asking for volunteers to train with messenger dogs for combat.
Stanley gets accepted into the training program and is given a Great Dane named Bones, a mistrustful suspicious abandoned guard dog. It takes a lot of hard work to train Bones, but eventually he and Stanley are shipped off to France.
Devastated at his canine losses, first Soldier then Bones, Stanley decides to tell the army his real age and go home, but instead they give him another dog, this one named Pistol. This dog is a traumatized, out of control mix breed who takes to Stanley immediately, which is surprising, since no one else has been able to get near him. Do Pistol and Stanley share the same need - just to be loved and wanted?
Sam Angus's Soldier Dog is one of the most compelling wartime animal stories I have read, on a par with, but different from, Michael Morpurgo's War Horse. Both books take place on the battlefields of World War I, but the real battles being fought are the personal ones that result from being hurt and betrayed by those who should be taking care of their children and animals.
Stanley is a strong, well-developed character who will resonate with boys as well as girls. His father's anger is volatile and at times pretty scary but he never physically hurts Stanley or his dogs, for that matter. I have to be honest and say that I don't like characters (or people) who have such unpredictable explosive tempers, but I thought that Angus did a great job on making Da believable, but not too frightening.
Much of this book occurs in wartime France. The battlefield scenes can be a bit graphic, but not overly so. And the descriptions of what happens when you are hit with mustard gas are not nearly as bad as the real thing. Hopefully just enough to make young readers realize that war is a terrible thing, but on the whole this novel should not offend young readers.
Soldier Dog is a debut novel for Sam Angus. The idea for it came to her after hearing a story on the radio about animals used in World War I, and there were some real canine heroes on that war, just like Bones and Pistol. You can read about the real messenger dogs that inspired this novel and more on Angus's Soldier Dog website.
And there is a very interesting interview with the author over at Red House in which Angus talks about wartime messenger dogs.
This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was purchased for my personal library