Written and illustrated by Berkeley Breathed
Philomel Books, 2009
$16.99, ages 8-12, 240 pages
Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Breathed draws upon his hilariously cute 2003 picture book "Flawed Dogs: The Year End Leftovers at the Piddleton Last Chance Dog Pound" to create a far-flung adventure about a show dog cursed with calamity then redeemed by his devotion to the human of his dreams.
The story opens as Sam the Lion, a stray, hapless dachshund, is about to give up on life. He's been lowered into a dog fighting arena. A soup ladle is taped to the stump where his fourth leg used to be and his big sad eyes drip with despair. As a bull terrier snarls, ready to attack to the death, Sam lays down, clenches his eyes shut and daydreams one last time about the girl he once had, and smiles.
Then the story flashes back three years. Sam the Lion, then a supernaturally beautiful dachshund bred to win dog shows, meets 14-year-old orphan Heidy McCloud, who's just left a school for troubled girls to live with her uncle Hamish, a famous dog show fancier-turned-recluse. Sam and Heidy's eyes meet on the airport tarmac; she's in a plane, he's in a crate. Sam is smitten. The girl is not, so she thinks, until Sam licks her under her nose and leaps into her bag to escape from a big scary woman in fur who's come to claim him.
Ever since Heidy's parents died looking for an elusive nibbler hound, she hasn't wanted anything to do with dogs, but when Heidy finds herself suddenly at the center of the McCloud annual Piddleton Dog Show, trying to convince judges Sam is really her's, Sam dances into her heart.
But their happiness is not to last. A vindictive show poodle, Cassius, sees Sam edging him out in the McCloud household, and fools everyone, including adoring Heidy, into thinking Sam is dangerous. In a flash, Sam's good fortune crumbles away and he's carted away by animal control with a gunshot to his ear.
At the National Last-Ditch Dog Depository, Sam meets the country's sorriest mutts and mongrels, but certain that he doesn't belong, he runs off to try to convince Heidi he was framed, only to have his leg crushed before he can reach her. Just when readers think they can't stand to see Sam hurt any more, the tattered dachshund finds himself in a lab that performs animal experiments too cruel for Breathed to mention.
Fortunately, Breathed seems aware that he'd quickly lose readers if he drew out the heartbreak. The grim details are moved along in short chapters, then Breathed begins writing Sam out of his misery -- but so haltingly that you continue to fear that this unlucky fellow may never get a break.
Sam, now three-legged, finally breaks free of the lab, but on his escape gets hit by a truck. He's nurtured back to health by a down-and-out man who tapes a ladle to his stump so he can walk but in a lapse of judgement, the man enters Sam into a dog fight to pay off his gambling debts. That is where the story began, with Sam laying on the dirt floor of the arena smiling and what happens next will have you glued to every page.
Stirred by thoughts of revenge against Cassius, Sam leaps away from the bull terrier's snapping jaws, just in time to escape through a heating vent, and returns to the dog pound to enlist the pack of endearing misfits to help him raid the Westminster Dog Show in New York City. Sam plans to fight Cassius to the death, but just when he gets his chance to exact revenge, he hears a familiar voice and loses all thoughts of settling the score. All he wants now is to win over his human again, but only a guardian angel can save Sam now.
Breathed's first illustrated children's novel takes you from heart-aching downs to exhilarating ups, and just when you need it, makes you laugh. I can't help think that if I ran a dog shelter, I'd want to pass out copies of this heart-tugging novel to every dogless family I could think of. One read through and you can't help but yearn for a down-and-out pooch.