Thursday, May 29, 2008

Overlooked Books Friday: The Dogs of March, by Ernest Hebert

Almost a year ago, I did a post on the novel, The Dogs of March and I’m going to recycle quite a bit of that post here in observance of Patti Abott’s brainchild, Overlooked Books Friday.

Have you ever loved a book or a movie so much, you’ve insisted that a good friend borrow it, hoping they’ll love it as much as you do? Back in the early 80’s I read a book called The Dogs of March. Although the original copy I had was loaned out and never returned, I’ve since bought two or three copies so I could give it away and always be able to read it again any time I had the urge. I’ve probably read this book a half dozen times. It’s an old friend.

Ernest Hebert teaches writing at Dartmouth College. In 1979 he published The Dogs of March, the first in a series of six novels that take place in the fictional town of Darby, New Hampshire. In 2007 I read Spoonwood, the final book in the Darby series. The Old American, published in 2000 was a departure from the contemporary setting of his previous works and takes place during the French and Indian Wars. Kirkus Reviews called it “a brilliant work, destined to be one of the great American historical novels.”

Reviewers have noted that in Darby, Ernest Hebert has created New Hampshire’s own version of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. Howard Elman, the main character in The Dogs of March, and a recurring character in the series is a working man, ignorant in many ways through his near illiteracy. He becomes unemployed early in the story when the factory he’s worked in all his life is sold and the jobs and machinery are moved south. He finds himself in a battle against change and in conflict with the new people moving into the area who have “college degrees and big bank accounts.”

“While Howard watched the Cutter house over the sights of a rifle, Zoe Cutter watched the Elman house through her new sliding glass doors.

Elman was firing his gun. She couldn’t see him, but the shots rang out clear and horrible, like the sound frogs make when you run over them on an August night. She imagined him crouched in the snow for his gunnery practice, the hulks of appliances and automobiles in his yard for targets, grim and angular under their caps of snow. Elman, she decided, was one of those male animals that ought to be castrated for its own good and for the good of other creatures. Cats that dragged themselves home half dead after meaningless territorial encounters; pigs that ate the young they had sired; men who murdered animals in drooling ecstasy – all manifestations of the male ego, that small-dictator part of the brain that was wired directly to the genitals.”

Hebert was probably the first, and may remain the only author to masterfully, elegantly and genuinely write about Granite State natives who are working class people, as complete characters and not just as caricatures of the stereotypical New England Yankee.

I have a special place in my heart for the Darby series. I was born and raised primarily in and around Boston, but I lived in the area of New Hampshire where the story takes place for a brief time and visited my father there for the last 25 or more years of his life.

And also, My Uncle Denis and Aunt Nancy's dog, Rocky was the model for the book cover. Okay, not really, but what a likeness, huh?

When I think about why The Dogs of March has endured for nearly 30 years, why it remains in print and why I find it as true and relevant now as I did when I first read it, I believe it’s because beneath the well drawn characters, the intimate sense of place, and the taut, compelling plot, flowing throughout the story and elevating it to literature is a theme about insiders and outsiders. What has often been called regional fiction isn’t regional at all. This is a universal story.

Ernest Hebert’s website is a wealth of fascinating insight into his writing process and tells the story of how he came to be a fiction writer. One of my favorite pieces is an essay called “How John Gardner Kicked My Ass and Saved My Soul”.

Hebert has been honored with numerous writing awards. United Press International honored him with three journalism awards when he was a reporter for The Keene Sentinel in Keene, New Hampshire. The Dogs of March, was cited for excellence by the Hemingway Foundation. The New Hampshire Writers Project named Mad Boys the best novel by a New Hampshire author in 1993 and the same honor went to The Old American in 2001. In 2002, he received the Sarah Josepha Hale Award for lifetime achievement by a New England author. Spoonwood was the IPPY award winner for Regional fiction in the Northeast in 2005. In September of 2006 The New England Booksellers Association named Hebert their Fiction Author of the Year.

Ernest Hebert is not as widely known as some authors, but he is one of my favorites and may turn out to be one of the best writers you’ve never heard of.


Vesper said...

Another book to add to my list. Thank you for a great review! I like the fragment you quoted. :-)

Patti said...

you never fail to amaze me. seriously. and you know how i feel about john gardner, so i am headed over to earnests' site.

have a good one...more cowbell!

Charles Gramlich said...

Cool. I'm going to do this today myself. This book sounds worth a look. I'll check it out.

Lana Gramlich said...

I'll have to check this out. Thanks for the tip!

Julie Layne said...

So many books, so little time! Gahhhhh...

fiona said...

Hello. I found you at yogamum's. I would love this book and will certainly seek it out. And also the essay on Gardner. Thanks for a great post.

Lisa said...

Vesper, I was flipping through the book for quite a while trying to decide what to quote. I really love his style.

Patti, His essay, "How John Gardner Kicked My Ass and Saved My Soul" is one I've mentioned a number of times. It's probably my favorite essay by a novelist.

Charles, How cool -- we both talked about books with dogs in them. I love this book so much I may figure out some kind of contest so I have an excuse to send a copy to someone.

Lana, I have a feeling you'd like it.

Julie, Don't I know it.

Fiona, I'm so glad you did! I checked out your blog and it's wonderful -- and based on at least one of your links, I'm guessing you might be in western Mass? Amazon always has this book and when I lived in NH a couple of years back I could always find it at the independent bookstores. If you read it, you'll have to tell me what you think.

Stephen Parrish said...

(o) Nice to meet you.

Greg said...

i heart rocky

Lisa said...


Who wouldn't!!!? :)

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

I was going to talk about THE DOG'S OF MARCH for this week's installment of "Fridays" until I noticed that you'd already done it. Great write-up of a great and unjustly-overlooked book!

Now I have to come up with something else for tomorrow...

Going Dutch said...

I heart Rocky, too :)



Lisa said...

Patrick, Talk about it anyway! Maybe we'll start a groundswell -- a DOGS OF MARCH summer book club or something. I think it deserves all the attention it can get :)

Leslie, Well of course! Like I told Greg -- who wouldn't? ;)

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf