Friday, May 11, 2012

Following Atticus

Following Atticus (2011) is the story of the author's feat of hiking New Hampshire's forty eight four-thousand foot peaks in winter with his 20 pound schnauzer. What makes this book unique among its genre is that it is so much more than a tale of a man and his dog.

We first meet Tom Ryan as editor of his newspaper, The Undertoad. The paper's purpose was to expose political corruption in the small city of Newburyport, Massachusetts, where Ryan lived. As he writes:

Depending on where you stood in town, whom you were related to or friends with, I was either a muckraker or a reformer. I took on the good old boys, refused to worship the long-existing sacred cows that the Daily News protected, and was helped in part because I didn't know the first thing about journalism...
(p. 8)

As the town's conscience, Tom made very close friends and equally dear enemies. He received death threats and had his tires slashed so often that the local garage kept a new set ready for him. He went to bed late and got up early. In essence, he lived a stressful and solitary life.

As fate would have it, Tom's busy life was interrupted by the "seemingly harmless" email from a member of the city's Zoning Board of Appeals. It was a request to find a home for an older schnauzer named Max. Without thinking it through, Tom said he would take the dog. The few pages devoted to Max are funny and heartwarming.

Max's stay with Tom was brief--he died a year and a half later. But his impact on the tough-as-nails editor was long-lasting. He soon set about getting another schnauzer--Atticus Maxwell Finch.

The author's descriptions of raising a puppy are humorous and touching. It soon becomes apparent that he hopes to give Atticus what he himself did not receive as a child--love, encouragement, and the chance to achieve his full potential, whatever that might be. In describing his early relationship with Atticus, Ryan reveals the conflicted relationship he has with his own father. He was the youngest of nine children, and had lost his mother when he was only seven. His father is a harsh and punishing man who never recovered from losing his wife. The only positive memories he had of family life were the camping trips they used to take each summer. Now, he rarely spoke to his father (other than in "Letter Home" which appeared in every issue of the paper). He had little to do with his many brothers and sisters, as none of them could bear to be together more than a few hours. There were too many bad memories for all of them.

Yet in trying to give Atticus a better life, Tom creates one for himself. For the first time in seven years, he takes a vacation from his paper and retreats briefly to an old farmhouse in Vermont. Here he and Atticus enjoy the calming effects of the being outdoors. He returns there over the next two years. The restorative qualities of his surroundings elicit changes in the reclusive author. Soon he reunites with some of his brothers, and they decide to hike in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. These mountains are important to the brothers: they were the site of their family camping trips. These trips were the only times they remember their father at peace and consequently, the only time they were happy as a family.

Thereafter, Tom and Atticus return on their own, hiking up the beautiful peaks as Tom recalls happier memories of his childhood. Within a couple of years, Tom resolves to hike the White Mountains during winter, hiking for various causes. Often hiking at night, he faces his darkest thoughts and feelings. Although his longing for a happy childhood follows him, he no longer is obsessed with the world's seamier side. Instead, he sees it beauty. Each mountain was emotional experience, he reflects. There were nights in the middle of that summer when I had mythic dreams about (my father) joining Atticus and me on a hike. But it wasn't the father I knew, the one who was jaded and worn down by life. Instead he was my age and we shared the forest together." (p. 63)

Tom Ryan's evocative prose truly captures the grandeur of the mountains and the fierceness of the elements. The book cites such writers as Thoreau, Whitman, Muir, Tennyson, Wordsworth, and C.S. Lewis and weaves their writings into his adventure. Ryan's story resonates with the quest motif--that of a hero who leaves his home in search of a treasure. As he discovers, making peace with the past is worth much more than gold.

Follow the further adventures of Tom and Atticus on their blog,

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