What could be better than a post-holiday roundup of fiction and nonfiction books about the human-animal connection that spans cultures. Today’s offerings, from wolves to a puppy in Nepal, are a happy way to ease into a new year.
An illustration from “The Ambassadors Dog.” (Courtesy of the author)
“The Ambassador’s Dog” by Scott H. DeLisi, illustrated by Jane Lillian Vance (Vajra Books, $18.99)
Like a Christmas gift that glows beyond December, Minnesota native Scott DeLisi has given us one of the prettiest and most heart-felt books of 2020. “The Ambassador’s Dog” occupies that rarefied space between picture book and adult keepsake, appealing to all ages. It’s fiction based on real life.
DeLisi, former ambassador to Nepal and a University of Minnesota graduate, is a natural writer. He tells with lyricism about a puppy who sends his dream of a permanent home out on the wind swirling from the high Himalayas, which touches a man named Scott. The pup is a Tibetan mastiff with a big head, broad chest and blue eyes whose ancestors guarded the palace of a king. The little one waits patiently on the side of the road in what was once the ancient kingdom of Lo on the Tibetan plateau. He knows he will meet his person and he does. Scott comes by on a hiking trip and then:
“It was the eyes that drew Scott’s gaze. It is why he saw the pup despite his blue-grey camouflage that allowed him to blend into the rocky hillside. Those blue eyes blazed in the morning light. They met Scott’s eyes. And at that moment, the puppy’s dream, the dream that had taken root inside Scott’s heart weeks before, began to stir.”
Scott names the puppy Lo Khyi, because, he tells the pup “you are not only a dog from Lo but you are also, for me, the happiness of Lo and you always will be.” (The word for dog, Khyi, is also the word for happiness.)
Scott DeLisi and Lok Hyi. Courtesy of the author.
Lo Khyi became a DiploDog (diplomat) whose story, Scott says, “can remind those we meet that it is good to dream and to believe, and that our dreams can come true. And they will see us together and know, that when we work as partners, anything is possible.”
“The Ambassador’s Dog” is physically beautiful. The cover is textured paper and the outside jacket is laminated with raised lettering. A pretty gold ribbon is a bookmark. It is enhanced by award-winning American artist Jane Vance’s mesmerizing, colorful oil paintings inspired by Tibetan Buddhism.
DeLisi is a graduate of the University of Minnesota law school and an alum of the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs. He has served as a diplomat in India, Madagascar, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Botswana, but Nepal is the place he and his wife, Leija, loved the most. It was Leija who urged her husband to write this story. They live, with Lo Khyi and other dogs, in Haymarket, Va. DeLisi leads Engage Nepal, a charitable foundation dedicated to helping its partners in Nepal shape a future of hope.
Vajra Books is located in Kathmandu. To order, go to The Ambassador’s Dog Facebook page.
“How to Raise an Elephant” by Alexander McCall Smith (Pantheon, $26.95)
It’s been awhile since I visited the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency in Botswana and I’m happy to report everything is going along pretty well for “traditionally built” proprietor Precious Ramotswe, her sharp-tongued assistant Mma Makutsi (proud secretarial school graduate), Precious’ husband, garage-owner Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni (always referred to by his full name), and the two young men who are shared by the detective agency and the garage.
“How to Raise an Elephant,” 21st in this series, finds Mma Ramotswe wondering why her sturdy old van smells funny. It’s because Charlie, one of the young men, transported a baby elephant in the battered vehicle. Charlie thinks it’s fine to keep the baby in an enclosure near children, but Precious and Mma Makutsi are horrified and insist the animal be taken to a sanctuary where it can be properly cared for. (Mma is a term of respect, a trait highly valued in Botswana.)
Precious and Mma Makutsi are also involved with Precious’ distant cousin, who is asking for money. The women are suspicious, and put all their detecting skills to finding out if they are being conned. Wise, compassionate Precious makes friends with a new neighbor and imparts a piece of wisdom that saves the woman’s marriage.
Fans of this series know that none of this is done without many cups of bush tea and wide-ranging conversations about the qualities of men and women, religion, cattle, Mma Makutsi’s new glasses, and how a good economy has lessened Botswana’s old values. The way conversations often get wildly off track is part of the charm of these books. This is leisurely storytelling. The author is in no hurry to get back to the main plot when the story wanders off, and that’s as it should be in Botswana.
“The Wolf’s Trail: An Ojibwe Story, Told by Wolves” by Thomas D. Peacock (Holy Cow! Press, $16.95).
Thomas Peacock, a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Anishinaabe, tells in this wide-ranging novel of the relationship between the Ojibwe people and wolves, as told by an elder wolf to young pups in northern Minnesota.
Minnesota Library Foundation selected “The Wolf’s Trail” as the best Indie-published adult fiction 2020 in Minnesota. (It was mistakenly classified as non-fiction in a recent column.)
Zhi-shay’ (Uncle), the storyteller who has a sense of humor, recounts how the Creator chose a wolf to walk with the first human and name the new earth. Both place high value on family, cooperation, and care for elders. Both bond like few other animals.
Throughout the book, Uncle’s stories instill in the pups the bond with humans, even when the humans are having hard times. It is the story of the Ojibwe people from their beginnings to their adaptation to the changing world.
Here is Uncle telling of the people settling along the shores of Lake Superior and sacred islands:
“…early in their first winter when the Ojibwe gathered in their wigwams and told their stories, among the stories was the one of first man and Ma’iingan, our grandfather, the grandfather of all wolves. And the wolves realized at once, of course, that these were the people of their prophecies, that these were the descendants of First Human, and that they share a common story, that they came to the lake and to this sacred island, Turtle Island, the island of Islands, to live out the story.”
Uncle’s stories continue until the pups grow up and he becomes feeble. Near the end, when others begin to hunt wolves, although the Ojibwe refuse to do so, a little boy comes into the story who will one day find the bundle of sacred items the people hid in a log long ago when they were going through hard times. And the boy will bring renewal.
Marcie Rendon, an enrolled member of the White Earth nation, says: “More than once, (this book) brought warmth to my heart. It is a story of zaagi’idiwin, the story of love — the love of the wolves for each other and their family, the Anishinaabe people. A story of the love the Creator has for what has been created.” Rendon is the first Native American woman to receive the $50,000 McKnight Distinguished Artist award.
Peacock, who lives in Redcliff, Wis. and Duluth, has written or co-authored 13 books, including Minnesota Book Award-winners “Ojibwe Waasa Inaabidaa: We Look in All Directions,” and “The Good Path.”
“Wolf Island: Discovering the Secrets of a Mythic Animal” by L. David Mech with Greg Breining (University of Minnesota Press, $24.95).
“Count wolves, count moose. Learn all you can.”
That was David Mech’s directive from Dr. Allen L. Durward of Purdue University, who recruited young graduate student Mech to study the relationship between wolves and their prey, moose, on Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior. Little was known in 1959 about wolves. With his partner, skilled pilot Don Murray, Mech spent three years observing a 15-member wolf pack from the air and on the ground. Their work would change the perception of wolves as blood-thirsty killers.
Mech saw things never before witnessed during the wolves’ hunt, such as how one grabbed the soft nose of a moose to help bring it down. He was surprised to learn how often the animals didn’t make a kill, including times when they backed off because a moose stood its ground, and sometimes for no reason he could discern. The men often saw a small wolf they named Homer hovering at the edges of the pack, trailing behind, accepted by only a few of the other wolves. Was Homer the last survivor of a group of more tame wolves released on the island by the Detroit Zoo?
As Mech continued his studies, he was surprised to find he’d become a wolf expert. Today he is senior research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey and adjunct professor in the departments of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology and of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior at the University of Minnesota. He has written more than a dozen books and is founder of the International Wolf Center in Ely. His book includes 12 pages of color photos.
In 1963, millions of readers of National Geographic saw Mech’s photographs shot from the aircraft and learned about Isle Royale for the first time, Rolf O. Peterson writes in the book’s Foreword. He has led the wolf-moose study at Isle Royale since the early 1970s.
Peterson explains the importance of Mech’s research: “(He) established field methods and a foundation that continues to frame research six decades later. Perhaps even more important, Dave was instrumental in creating a sea change in public attitudes about wolves, from evil vermin to respectable fellow travelers.”
“Celtic Saints and Animal Stories: A Spiritual Kinship” by Edward C. Sellner (Paulist Press, $19.95)
Sellner, professor emeritus of theology and spirituality at St. Catherine University, shows the bonds between Celtic saints and animals in this slender, interesting paperback.
“Like many shamans throughout history, ancient Celtic druids and druidesses knew from firsthand experience of the mystical connection between humans and animals,” he writes. “Animals, in fact, were considered by them as ‘helping spirits’ who guided not only the spiritual leaders of the tribes, but also ordinary people through life’s conflicts and difficulties, sometimes helping them attain a new direction in life.” That special affinity with animals, he says, was reciprocated.
Besides the “Holy Trinity” of Celtic Saints — Patrick of Armagh, Brigit of Kildare and Columcille of Iona — Sellner tells brief stories of 17 other saints and the animals who befriended them. Kevin of Glendalough shelters in his hands a blackbird that probably sang for him. Ciaran of Saighir meets a wild boar who helps him clear land for his monastery. Columban of Luxeuil’s white horse sheds great tears at his master’s approaching death. And Samathann of Clonbroney, abbess of the monastery at Clonbroney in County Longford, Ireland, used the power of her prayers to tame beasts on a pond near her monastery that had been causing havoc. She also fed 50 guests from one cow after praying to the holy virgin.
This 100-page book of stories most of us have never heard, ends with a charming, eight-stanza poem by a ninth-century Irish monk about his cat. It begins:
I and Pangur Ban my cat,
‘Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
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