Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Chester and Gus by Cammie McGovern

Chester, a chocolate lab, would have been a perfect service dog except for his fear of loud noises. Unable to be certified, Chester is chosen by the parents of a 10 year-old nonverbal boy with autism named Gus, hoping that Chester’s help, Gus will be able to attend public school. At first, Gus won’t even let Chester near him, but slowly allows to the dog near him. For his part, Chester knows he has found the person he was meant to be with.

Gus’s mother Sara is desperate for her son to be able to go the school with other children, and acting out of that desperation, she deceptively presents Chester as a certified service dog to the school’s principal. Placed in a classroom, Chester is a hit with the other students who basically ignore Gus. But not everyone is happy about having Chester around. A boy named Ed resents not being allowed to bring his dog to school, and the other fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Palmer, doesn’t want a dog distracting students and disrupting school routine. One bright spot for Gus is Mama, a cafeteria worker who loads the dishwasher and who simply accepts Gus for who he is.

But when it comes to light that Chester is not really a certified service dog, the principal tells Sara he can no longer accompany Gus to school until he is certified. But on Chester’s last day of school, he and Gus get separated during a fire drill, Gus is found in a closet unconscious and later diagnosed as having a seizure. Kept home from school for a few weeks, when Gus returns without Chester, he is badly beaten up by Ed, the class bully.

Sara decides to have Chester certified as a seizure response dog, and calls Penny, the person who originally trained him. But Penny has always had other ideas for Chester; convinced that he is an unusually intelligent dog, she wants to teach him to read and has not intention of returning Chester to Gus. 

 Will Chester ever return to his person, Gus?    

Chester and Gus is a story that will certainly pull at your heartstrings, particularly because the narrated point of view is done by a dog who connects with the boy for whom he was chosen. I thought this anthropomorphism was a particularly effective literary strategy for a book that is concerned with the limits of communication in order to be understood. Chester may understand much of what is going on with Gus, but he has no way of telling anyone. Gus can communicate with Chester, but not with the rest of the world. It feels like a real catch-22 and McGovern really has presented this frustrating situation successfully without resorting to being too ridiculous. 

And she has really captured Sara’s desperation for her son to be part of the world so well, but also the resistance from people who don’t understand or care about autistic children being able to gain some level of independent. When I was teaching, I didn’t run into too many Mrs. Palmers, but there were some who just couldn’t be flexible. 

Two things did bother me. While I could understand Sara’s motives, I didn’t like her deceiving the principal to get what she wanted. And I felt that Ms. Cooper, the teacher’s aide assigned to Gus, never really noticed what was going on with him at school, and she certainly should have been reprimanded for not staying with him during the fire drill. Instead. blame fell solely on Chester’s head for abandoning Gus.

Writing a book about an basically nonverbal autistic character isn’t an easy thing to do, but McGovern has succeeded at giving the reader a glimpse into what life is like for the children and their families.  

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was an EARC received from Edelweiss+

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