TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:
"The Leanin' Dog" is a subtle, quiet novel about 11 year old Dessa Dean's friendship with a wayward brown dog. Although not clearly specified — which was a nagging issue for me, as I kept thinking, "What the heck time period is this?" — the story seems to take place in the 1930s (?) in the mountain West, shortly before Christmas. Dessa and her dad live in a bare, remote wildnerness cabin. By day, dad goes out trapping and hunting, often with limited success, while Dessa stays in the cabin doing school work, cooking, and cleaning. The two live a spare, hardscrabble existence. Both characters are similarly restrained in expressing their emotions — it's as if the harsh setting requires a certain stoicism — although we immediately sense just how much they love each other.
Dessa is largely confined to the cabin, and not by her own choosing. She's still suffering greatly from her mom's death a few months back. Dessa and her diabetic mom got caught in a snowstorm, and poor Dessa watched firsthand as mom froze to death in the brutal conditions. The trauma has effected Dessa physically (her ears still burn from the frostbite) and, more damagingly, emotionally. Dessa suffers from what she calls "daymares," which we'd understand as debilitating panic attacks. No amount of coaxing, bullying, or pushing can get Dessa to allow herself to leave the cabin. Dessa counts every step from the cabin to the porch's edge, and she simply cannot make herself reenter the world of hunting, fishing, and exploring that she once so adored. Her beloved cabin now stands as a prison.
One day, a brown dog, herself injured with a lame leg, wanders over to Dessa's cabin. Lonely Dessa becomes intrigued by the animal, and her kindness eventually gets the skittish dog to come in for some food. Pretty soon, the dog is spending every day with the increasingly happy Dessa, playing with her or warming herself by the stove. The only problem? The dog suffers from just about the exact problem as Dessa — she cannot bear to be closed into the cabin. The dog whines all night outside the front door, and, during the day, when the dog is in the cabin, Dessa must always keep the door ajar to calm the dog's frayed nerves.
There's a big climax here that coincides with Christmas Eve, when Dessa is planning a special dinner for her dad and the dog. Without giving anything away, the dog protects Dessa from certain death and helps her face her own demons and live again. Christmas Day thus becomes a sweet, wonderful turning point in Dessa's life. In other words, you might get a bit choked up. You've been warned!
"The Leanin' Dog" is written in spare language, which beautifully evokes the barebones world in which Dessa lives. Dessa thinks and speaks as a country person, which may at first be jarring for today's readers, but her manner perfectly conveys her practical, good-hearted, hopeful nature. Dessa's faith in herself may have wavered, but she never stops believing in the dog, her father, and her lost mom. That's really quite beautiful. So while there's not a whole lot of whiz-bang action in this story, thoughtful readers should find much to like, from the rural setting to Dessa's understated bravery to the authentic, touching bond between Dessa and her dad to, finally, the lovely friendship she creates with the dog. This is a perfect book for young readers (grades five and up) looking for a gentle, poetic book about the transformative power of friendship. I also think it's great for dog lovers of all ages. As the Leanin' Dog herself would say, "Boof!" 🙂