Could there be anything worse than the belief that not even your own dog likes you?
Elizabeth Fensham’s new book begins with nine-year-old Eric running away from home, egged on by his ‘horrible’ sister Gretchen. Worse, when it doesn’t work out, he gets sent to his room for being rude to her like the victim is in prison and the bad guy is free. (p.6) No one in the family is ‘on his side’ – not even the dog.
He seems to have made a number of mistakes with the dog, not the least of which is its name. Provoked by Gretchen who’s ten years older than he is, he names it Ugly. And because he doesn’t keep his promises about looking after it, the dog’s loyalty is to mum, who feeds him. And she doesn’t take kindly to Eric’s experiments with using the new idioms he’s learned at school: the dog was Eric’s eighth birthday present but since the dog loves her instead of him, he calls her an Indian giver. It’s not a pretty scene.
Fortunately he has two good friends at school. Milly and Hugh try out their newly acquired research skills by designing a questionnaire to solve Eric’s problem. They survey other children who come up with a heap of suggestions, but Eric – who, it must be said tends to give up easily – says he’s tried nearly all of them. But he hasn’t…
‘Well, next is this idea of Emily’s about letting the dog smell your hand and acting gentle around it.’
I knew all about that. Grandad had told me before we went to the Dog Shelter. ‘That’s the right thing to do when you meet any dog,’ I said, ‘but after that first introduction, you have to live with your dog every day of its life. The same goes for Skye’s idea. Ugly likes being tickled and scratched, but you can’t keep doing that all day.’
Milly crossed off Emily and Skye’s ideas.
‘Dog toys?’ asked Hugh.
‘Ugly’s a spoilt brat,’ I said. ‘He’s got masses of toys, but he gets bored with them and sneaks off and chews up things that belong to us, like my Parthenon project.’ (p.41)
One experiment appeals, but alas, it doesn’t work out. The idea of giving the dog bones fails after one try because his mother is none too pleased about Eric carving the bone out of the Sunday roast before it’s been cooked, and Dad is none too pleased about Ugly destroying the vegie patch to bury the bone. The rest of his crazy experiments don’t work out too well either.
The humour derives partly from the narrative voice. The book is written entirely from Eric’s point of view, so although young readers can see that Ugly’s flaws are caused by Eric’s behaviour, Eric doesn’t see that at all. His whiny self-justifications and blaming of others are funny because they’re authentic.
Meanwhile the dog is growing, and the time comes when there’s an ultimatum. Either Eric takes responsibility for the dog and trains it properly, or it has to go. The humour limps a bit as the ‘responsibility’ theme kicks in, but I still think that young readers will enjoy the book and its unexpected ending.
The cover art by Jo Hunt is just perfect.
Author: Elizabeth Henshaw
Title: My Dog Doesn’t Like Me
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2014
Source: Review copy courtesy of UQP.
Fishpond: My Dog Doesn’t Like Me
or direct from UQP.
PS Elizabeth Henshaw is also the author of Helicopter Man which won the Children’s Book Council of Australia Award for Book of the Year: Younger Readers (2006). It’s not a book for younger readers, IMO, because it’s a harrowing book about a boy whose father suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and they are on the run from the father’s imaginary enemies. But in the hands of a skilled teacher it is an excellent book for older readers and young adults to comprehend what life can be like when there is mental illness in the family.