Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Soldier Dog by Sam Angus

It is May 1917, the war is still raging in France, but Stanley Ryder, 13, is in big trouble back home in Lancashire, England.  Things between him and his Da haven't been very good since him mother's death and favored older brother Tom enlisted in army help win the war.  Now, Stanley has let his father's prized greyhound, Rocket, out and the dog is missing and in heat.

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.

But once in France, and in the thick of the war, Stanley realizes his idea of find Tom is really feasible.  And Stanley also discovers the realities of war - the danger, the fear and the pride he has in how well Bones does what he was trained to do.  One day, while crossing the area called No Man's Land (the area that separates enemy trenches from each other), Bones is with mustard gas by enemy.  He manages to get across the field and deliver his message, one that ultimately saved many lives, but later Bones dies a hero from his wounds.

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


  1. Sounds like a worthwhile investment!

  2. This will have to go on my TBR pile. It sounds awesome. I believe the more people can read about animals and the important role that they play in our lives the better. Hadn't heard of this one, thanks!

  3. I know you like good MG novels, Pam, so Soldier Dog should really appeal to you. And the dogs are wonderful.


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