I didn't know all that much about this slim little book when I started reading it. I knew of the author, I'd read her more famous book Tom's Midnight Garden (see my review) a few years ago. I liked it well enough, but wasn't bowled over. So I approached A Dog So Small with a fairly open mind as I usually like a dog story. I'm rather riled up about this story and there are more spoilers here than I would normally share.
From the beginning I wasn't quite sure what to make of it. Ben Blewitt is rather a lonely child. He is the middle child of five, sandwiched between his two older sisters and his two younger brothers. His sisters are planning the upcoming wedding of the eldest, and his brother are happy with their pet mice and feeding wild pigeons.
Ben pines for a dog. His grandfather promises him one, and at the very start of the story Ben wakes up on his birthday expecting news of the dog he has been promised. But his grandmother won't let his grandfather get him one, because they'd be beholden to get one for all the grandkids, or at least all of the families. And so they send Ben a Mexican cross-stitch dog for his birthday. The cross-stitich dog is a Chihuahua, while Ben has been dreaming of nothing but borzois, bloodhounds and Irish wolf-hounds for months. His disappointment and anguish are palpable.
Ben lives in Central London so his dreams of a massive dog are not particularly realistic. Our childhood dreams, and even our adult dreams aren't always realistic. Ben is reduced to having an imaginary dog "a dog so small you can only see it with your eyes shut". He becomes obsessed with his imaginary dog, a Chihuahua, like the cross-stitch dog. Ben takes to spending as much time as he can with his "dog so small". He walks and travels around London with his eyes shut so that he can see his dog.
The dog Chiquitito was becoming a continuous presence for Ben. When the boy’s eyes were shut, the dog was there, visibly; and when his eyes were open, the dogs still seemed present- invisibly. Ben felt it there- knew it was there, now loyally and alertly beside him, now with its active and bold spirit speeding it to engage in some new and extraordinary exploit. Always the dog was either before Ben’s eyes or in his mind. His mother, watching him when he did not know he was being watched, saw him with eyes open but vacant- abstracted and absorbed, she supposed, in some inward vision. She told herself that the boy slept well, ate well, and admitted to no worries, but she was uneasy.
I was uneasy too. I found the notion of Ben walking around London with his eyes shut dreadful. Initially it was sweet, his imaginary dog friend, but it got way too weird for me. Imagine seeing this boy walking around with his eyes shut, sitting in class all day with his eyes shut. It all culminates in a terrible accident, a terrible price to pay- Ben's obsession nearly kills him.
It is nicely written.
The front of the house looked over the road and its infrequent traffic. The back looked up the driftway- a rutted track that ambled between fields and meadows, skirted a wood, crossed the river by a special bridge of its own, and came out again at last- with an air of having achieved nothing and not caring, anyway- into another country road just like the one it had started from.
And there are some marvellous words- poppling, strophes, driftway.
But overall I found the book unkind and rather absurd. I realise that the dog so small was emblematic for how much Ben wanted a dog, and the story is telling us to be careful what you wish for.
He saw clearly that you couldn't have impossible things, however much you wanted them. He saw that if you didn't have the possible things, then you had nothing.
Ben acts in rather fallible and really quite mean ways when he does finally get to have a dog of his own. His real dog can't match up to the feats of his imaginary dog, and he rejects the poor thing trying to lose it on Hampstead Heath before realising the error of his ways.
I'm not quite sure why I'm so incensed by this book. I've been thinking about it all day. I did find it an interesting contrast to The Incredible Journey (see my review) that I finished a few weeks ago. Both were published at essentially the same time, A Dog So Small in 1962, and The Incredible Journey in 1961. A Dog So Small was so much more dated- the language I guess (whilst charming), and also the city life it portrayed is one long gone. It did provoke a strong reaction I guess, sadly not a more positive one.