A Dog’s History of America by Mark Derr
Per my earlier chagrin at forgetting how excellent nonfiction can be, I got me to a library a couple of weeks back and scoured the nonfiction shelves, purposelessly abandoning myself to the serendipitous library gods. Happily, they did not fail me and I came up with the wonderful A Dog’s History of America: How Our Best Friend Explored, Conquered, and Settled a Continent by Mark Derr.
First of all, it’s a great topic and one which I feel has been too often neglected by historians. The topic of dogs in history appears universally derided as a fluff-topic, best confined to the little coffee-table books on offer by the check-out (probably next to things like Inspirational, Famous & Hilarious Quotes About Dogs and You Know Your Dog Owns You If…).
But this shouldn’t be! Dogs, by virtue of being humankind’s constant companions for the better part of human history, have been present at practically every meaningful historic moment, big and small, and have inserted themselves into the narrative of history even as established History refused them access.
Mark Derr to the rescue, ladies and gents, and not a moment too soon. A Dog’s History of America is a delightful book that sweeps through the history of the North American continent from the first humans to arrive through the early 2000s, keeping a steady eye on dog’s role and place throughout. He occasionally jumps to Europe (during the World Wars to discuss American army dogs’ role) and the polar regions (both Arctic and Antarctic exploration relied heavily on dogs), but mainly confines himself to telling the history of dogs in what would eventually become the United States.
But Derr’s book is more than simply cobbled together historical dog-related anecdotes (although there are healthy helpings of those, too, all of which are completely fascinating). He also provides a valuable overview of America’s own history, commenting most explicitly on the poor treatment minority groups have consistently received from the first arrival of the Europeans (and how those Europeans used dogs in contrast to the ways native peoples did). The book jumps between light stories of dog shenanigans to serious moments of heart-breaking cruelty and discrimination, making Derr’s book more than “just” a dog book.
Derr also writes with a pleasing fleetness unusual in nonfiction, nimbly jumping through time and across the continent without ever belaboring a point to tell the story of humans in America (and their canine companions).
It’s a thoroughly enjoyable read and a far more enlightening one than I was expecting, honestly. Since dogs are the unifying thread of the narrative—even when it veers into valuable historical context, it’s so Derr can tell us about the next dogs—I would still mainly recommend this book to dog people. That said, I do think anyone could (and should!) enjoy it and would be well-served by reading it.