It is unusual for me to read two books about animals so closely together. I just talked about Oscar the cat and his ability to comfort dementia patients and their families. Now I’m ready to talk about a spunky Schnauzer and his human, Tom Ryan. I don’t know where I first heard about Atticus and Tom, but when my friend Dena mentioned the book, it jogged something in my subconscious and I knew I wanted to read it. Well, after confirming that we’re still talking about Atticus in the present tense, I wanted to read it.
At first glance, Following Atticus is about a man and his dog and their adventures in winter hiking the 48 peaks in New Hampshire that rise more than 4000 feet. But this is just the mechanism for telling a deeper story of a friendship between a man and a dog, and what this friendship and their adventures together has taught the man. Too, Following Atticus is a tribute to Maxwell Garrison Gillis, Tom’s first Schnauzer. In fact, Atticus’ full name is Atticus Maxwell Finch, a tribute to both one of the greatest literary heroes of the twentieth century, and to Maxwell Garrison Gillis. Although Maxwell isn’t a presence throughout the book, his presence is felt throughout the book.
I confess I teared up a few times reading this one. Some stories about animals just do that to me, but in this instance I didn’t mind it. I feel like I know Atticus and Tom, and because as readers we are treated to such an intimate look at their friendship, the book made me hopeful. I had a little epiphany as I read it. See, I’ve been wanting a dog for ages. But I know I’m not living the right life right now to be a good dog owner and that it wouldn’t be fair to a dog to live with me. Reading Following Atticus I had a completely new thought. If I got a dog, would that be enough to help create a life that includes a dog? I think Tom experienced something similar, in a way. He integrated Atticus into his life immediately. But it was their experiences in the mountains that showed Tom that his life in Newburyport, MA, while good, wasn’t his true path. Hiking with Atticus helped Tom see himself in a new light and discover that there was a whole new life out waiting for him.
At one point in the book, Tom says, “Magic is where you find it; the only thing that matters is that you take the time to look for it.” When I read that, I had to put aside the book and write down that sentiment in the little notebook I keep with me all the time. I also quoted it as a Facebook status, and judging by the number of likes it received, this is a sentiment that we need to remember more often. I wasn’t expecting to be hit by a statement like that in this book. Anyone who dismisses Following Atticus as a book “just” about a man and a dog would be missing out on extraordinary story about friendship, self discovery, and the importance of living the life you’re meant to lead. Unexpectedly, Following Atticus is one of my favorite reads for 2011.
Tom keeps a blog about his adventures with Atticus. You can check it out here.