Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Review - The Dust of 100 Dogs by A.S. King

Short review: Emer was an abused Irish child turned pirate in the 1600s. Saffron is a poor girl in Pennsylvania now. In between there are 100 lives as a dog.

She was a pirate
Then lived as one hundred dogs
Now a teenager

Full review: The Dust of 100 Dogs is a novel split between two protagonists, each living centuries and a hundred dog lives apart. Or perhaps there is only one protagonist who has crafted an imaginative internal fantasy life to cope with her awful family life complete with a drug-addicted sibling and parents who are at turns demanding and intrusive and neglectful. Dust is a young adult novel, but it is not the sort of young adult novel that pretends that because the protagonists are teenagers that their problems are superficial or trivial, but instead treats its characters are real people facing real nightmares.

Saffron, the first of the two central characters in the novel, is a precocious young woman, the youngest child in a poor family with a mother who is an alcoholic, a father who is emotionally destroyed by his service in Vietnam, and a collection of older siblings who range from indifferent to hostile. She demonstrates her intellectual gifts at a young age, and from that point forward her mother invests all her hopes and dreams into her, banking on Saffron's future success to serve as her ticket out of poverty and despair. But Saffron harbors a secret as well - her apparent intelligence is the result of being the reincarnation of the 17th century pirate Emer Morrisey, who was cursed and condemned to live one hundred lives as a dog before being reborn as a human.

Or so Saffron believes. And there is no reason not to believe that this is entirely true. But there is also some reason to regard Saffron's memories of being an abused Irish girl, sold unwillingly into marriage who escaped to the Caribbean and turned pirate, as anything other than the fantasies of a neglected but bright child desperate to escape the poverty of her life and the crushing expectations her otherwise neglectful parents place upon her. And the story leaps back and forth between Saffron's life in modern-day Pennsylvania and Emer's life first in rural Ireland, then in Paris, and finally in Tortuga, Jamaica, and other Caribbean locales. With the exception of the opening scene, the stories of both women are told more or less in order, interwoven as the narrative moves back and forth between the 17th and the 20th centuries.

Of the two, Emer's life is clearly the harsher one - first Cromwell destroys her village and in the process kills her family, then she is taken in after a fashion by her cowardly and abusive uncle who eventually sells her against her will into an arranged marriage with a wealthy Frenchman despite her being clearly in love with an Irish boy. Emer refuses to accept her fate, and after a taste of life as a vagabond on the streets of Paris heads to the Caribbean lured by the promise of a husband. Once again betrayed, Emer is raped instead, and disguises herself as a man to take service as a sailor, eventually turning pirate. She channels her rage into her efforts, and returns to the needlework she had learned as a child, sewing ever more elaborate capes to wear while plundering Spanish ships.

Running parallel to Emer's story is Saffron's story. Born in Pennsylvania and saddled with an intellect that creates expectations and a family that seems to live solely to pressure Saffron to fulfill those expectations so they can escape their own self-inflicted misery, she plots her escape. Saffron lives in that desert netherworld with parents who mostly neglect her because they simply do not understand her, but when she displays any form of independence from the plan they have laid out for her (for their own benefit) they smother her. Meanwhile her drug-addicted brother fights, steals, and otherwise slides into criminal oblivion, a situation his parents ignore. Caught in this confusing and unpleasant life, teenage Saffron remembers herself as Emer, killing those around her in inventively violent ways while planning her escape to recover the treasure she hid in the sands of Jamaica centuries earlier.

Linking the two are brief interludes, titled "Dog Facts", in which the lives of a few of the dogs that Saffron remembers living are used as case studies for how to raise dogs. Of course, the dog facts are mostly metaphors for Saffron's current life, illustrating how her parents emotionally abuse her and her brother, just as dog owners emotionally abuse their pets. And this raises the interesting question of the novel - is Saffron actually Emer reincarnated after living the lives of one hundred dogs? Or is she merely imagining that she was a vicious pirate in a previous life in order to escape her current life? Though the events of the story seem to confirm that Saffron is indeed the reincarnation of Emer, there is enough ambiguity that she might just be fantasizing. And what teenager who felt miserable and alone has not imagined horrible deaths for those who torment them, or imagined a more colorful past for themselves? And in this way A.S. King ties the story to the lives of teenagers and draws the reader into the story. Because despite apparently having lived the lives of a Irish pirate and a hundred canines, Saffron is in many ways very much a typical misunderstood teenager who is both highly intelligent and weighted down by expectations.

Eventually, Saffron does what Emer could not, and negotiates a peace with those around her and is finally able to break free of her oppressive family. But she must also break free of Emer's past, and that requires she confront Fred Livingston, a creepy island inhabitant who apparently has lain in wait for her since the fateful day of Emer's death. And in describing Fred Livingstone's virulent personality and behavior, A.S. King exposes the ugly side of humanity, far worse than anything Emer had ever done despite her piratical ways. But Saffron figures out how to do what Emer could not, and breaks what could have become a vicious cycle of repetition to set herself free of her past.

In The Dust of 100 Dogs A.S. King has crafted a coming of age story that captures all of the hurt and pain and anger inherent in growing up and finding your own place in the world. Though it seems to tell two stories, Dust really tells one: to move to the future, you have to shed the demons of your past or they will drag you back to where you were before. Emer's past consumes her, while Saffron, with the perspective of a hundred lives behind her, is able to defy her past and see a hopeful future. Although it seems odd at first glance, mixing the story of an Irish pirate, a dirt poor Pennsylvania girl, and a collection of facts gleaned from the lives of dogs results in a compelling tale that examines abuse, neglect, and the struggles of a bright child saddled with poverty and the burden of stifling parental expectations. Just as Emer flays the skin off her enemies, A.S. King peels back the layers to expose the raw core at the heart of adolescence and delivers a fantastic book.

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  1. How interesting! I definitely have to take a look at this book!

  2. @Julia Rachel Barrett: A.S. King has put out two books - Dust of 100 Dogs and Please Ignore Vera Dietz, and I loved them both. She has vaulted herself into position as one of my favorite authors. I'm really looking forward to her next book Everybody Sees the Ants.