The Spuddy by Lillian Beckwith
This is perhaps a peculiar book to include in a Recommended Reading blog being as it is neither current (being published in 1974) nor particularly celebrated, possibly known only to those Hebridean visitors who like their geo-literature pocket-size. I like it, precisely because of the book’s out-moded themes and style (seemingly belonging more to the nineteenth century than the twenty-first), for its anthropomorphism, for its uneasy blend of harsh reality and sentiment.
So, is it a book for adults? Or is it a book for children / young people? At first glance, The Spuddy would appear written for children. Children’s and young people’s literature nowadays mirrors back to them divorce, self-harming, vampirism. There is nothing of that sort in The Spuddy.
One of the central characters is Andy, eight years old, good-looking, a mute and he forms a relationship with the Spuddy, a thick set, grey-black mongrel. Yet, as their relationship develops, Beckwith throws in such themes as alcoholism, prostitution (‘kipper lassies’), broken families, euthanasia for unwanted animals and wildlife, and death. A curious blend.
Why would you want to read it? On the plus side, there are evocative accounts of life in a fishing village – the kaleidoscope of the quayside, the thrill of the boat ‘spearing’ out to sea, dreams of ‘silver darlings’ – herrings. Beckwith has an eye for the rightness of things – the interaction between a lonely boy and an abandoned dog; in the line of the fishing boat, its ‘sweet run of the seams’, and its ‘strength and fitness for the continual combat with the sea’, and she gives us an enthralling account of a shipwreck.
Read it because it’s almost a guilty pleasure – never mind the characters are stereotypical and two-dimensional (women are ‘testy’, ‘fussy’, with a ‘scolding tongue’ and the men on the whole gruff and inarticulate); never mind the story is linear, the author’s voice is never far away, the tone sentimental.
The surprises and shocks in the story come from it being written in a time when it was considered in order to tie a boulder round an unwanted dog and drop it out at sea; where a mute boy could be bullied and denied a schooling; where empty dog food tins could be casually dropped into the harbour water. The harshness of Island life is reflected in society’s treatment of a boy and a dog.
And it doesn’t promise a happy ending either.
BTW, a Spuddy is something you hold in high regard for its abilities. This dog can tell the days of the week, locate shoals of herring and pull in a fishing net with its teeth. Awesome!