Book Review: Following Atticus, by Tom Ryan

Cover image courtesy of Harper Collins.

I can’t say I’m a big fan of dog memoirs. You know, those cloying Marley and Mes in which the author thinks his or her dog is the most important in the world, where the quirky canine teaches life lessons even though you know it really just wants some kibble, a stick, and rub on the tummy. I love dogs, but the economies built around them wear me out, and books about dogs are no exception. That being said, when I came across Following Atticus, by Tom Ryan (William Morrow, $26, out Sept. 20), the cover still made me look twice: a miniature schnauzer standing in the snow with what looks like Smartwool socks and crampons on its paws. (As I would find out later, these doggie winter booties are called Muttluks.)

The subtitle promised “forty-eight high peaks, one little dog, and an extraordinary friendship.” The “friendship” part promised some stale bromides, but the “high peaks” with this wee pooch made me crack it open. And right inside the cover is a hand-drawn map of New Hampshire’s White Mountains, highlighting its 4,000-foot crags. Turns out that the author, the founder and former editor of Newburyport alternative paper The Undertoad, set out with this tiny dog to climb up and down all 48 of these mountains, twice in 90 days of winter. They did so to raise money for the Jimmy Fund after a friend died of cancer, and thus a grand quest was born, complete with challenges, love of nature, and scattered tears along the way.

Sounds painfully treacly, yes? Surprisingly it’s not, and that’s largely thanks to Ryan himself. If Atticus seems an unlikely mountaineer, so does Ryan, a self-described “middle-aged, overweight newspaper editor” who likes poking the powers-that-be in his North Shore town. In fact, the first 50 pages or so of the book are a great portrait of Newburyport and what it’s like to know everyone and to often be the one to publishes what people don’t want to talk about. And when he writes about hiking these mountains, he does so with a sense of discovery any armchair reader will appreciate — you don’t have to be an Outside subscriber or Jon Krakauer fan to get this book.

Then there’s the way he writes about Atticus: This schnauzer sounds and looks very cute, and Ryan obviously becomes a sudden softie when he first gets this five-pound puppy, but he never tries to make Atticus more than just a dog — a very good, adventurous dog, mind you. But though he’s that proverbial best friend, his behavior is not over-analyzed or anthropomorphized. This tempered sentimentality is crucial when Atticus starts to go blind, but is insistent on hiking the mountains. Ryan writes plainly about it, not overstating what is clearly an emotional time for him, and the effect is more powerful for such restraint. And when they finally scale Mount Washington, it’s truly a quiet triumph.

Okay, okay, perhaps I’m getting soft, too, these days or something, so a few brief caveats. If you don’t like dogs, if you have no interest at all in dogs, if you thought the movie Benji was a complete waste of time, then this book is not for you. If you don’t like nature writing, particularly about mountains, and if you don’t have a sentimental bone in your body, then even Ryan’s wry take is not for you. Ryan writes like a newspaperman, so inspiring flights of poetry are few, when they come, they’re sometimes stilted. However, it’s such a nice time to read these 276 pages that never cloy, that these complaints seem almost petty. And if you like dogs, if you do like nature writing (particularly if you’re a fan of the White Mountains), and you like an inspiring tale that doesn’t slobber all over you with cuteness, then it’s all right here.