I want to preface this review by noting that I didn’t tag Yellow Dog under TBW’s Indigenous or First Nations tags despite a Cree protagonist and a narrative focus on relationship and culture, because those tags are for Indigenous-created stories. Although Miriam Korner has studied Cree language and culture, and co-wrote When the Trees Crackle with Cold with Bernice Johnson-Laxdal about the latter’s childhood memories and the Cree lunar calendar, she is not Indigenous. Neither am I. From my perspective, Yellow Dog was a respectful portrayal; but FNMI readers, please share your thoughts! I’d love to hear from you.
“Come on, Jeremy, I don’t have all day. If you’re too chicken, just say so.” Justin walks a few steps down the dusty gravel road like he has lost all interest. His back is turned to me, but I can still feel his eyes digging into me, sharp as a knife.
I don’t really understand what Justin’s problem is with dogs. I never thought much of it, when it was just throwing rocks. We all did that. But something is different now, and I don’t know if Justin got meaner or I just don’t enjoy it so much anymore. I mean, it’s easy to just throw a rock and watch the dog snap at the air, not knowing what attacked him, but if you hit a dog or pull its tail and the dog actually knows it’s you… (p. 7-8)
The subtitle for Miriam Korner’s Red Cedar 2017/2018 nominee Yellow Dog says it all: A coming-of-age novel. Jeremy is thirteen. He and his mum live in Poplar Point, northern Saskatchewan. Jeremy is pretty used to being independent, though there isn’t much to do; his dad died before Jeremy turned three, and his best friend, Justin, doesn’t have a lot of oversight from adults, either. Justin’s family, especially his uncle, are best avoided, actually, which is one of the things Justin and Jeremy don’t talk about. Just like they don’t talk about how Justin never has lunch other than what Jeremy shares, or why Justin hates dogs.
From the back copy:
Jeremy lives in a small community where winters are long and stray dogs roam the streets. When peer pressure leads Jeremy into a bad prank, he is immediately struck with guilt — and that’s when his life changes forever. Trying to make amends, Jeremy befriends Yellow Dog — and in the process meets a curious old man who introduces him to the adventures of dog sledding. Soon Jeremy is forming his own old-time dog team that includes Yellow Dog and discovers more about himself — and the old man — than he ever thought possible.
It is immediately evident that the author has spent significant time in the sort of small town that her character does. The feel of the streets, the stray dogs, the gravel-edged conversations between Jeremy and Justin, the old man all conjure up life in northern rural Canada. The moosemeat sandwiches. Moccasins. The dust, the crack of a hunting rifle, the casual constant checking on weather conditions: reading, you are there.
Jeremy and Justin have been best friends for forever, but the cracks in their relationship are more and more apparent. Justin is beginning to shy off in favour of the yellow dog, Acimosis, the dog whom he hurt and whose trust he suddenly, desperately, wants to regain.
“What’s his name?”
The dog’s ears perk up when he hears his name and his back end wriggles.
“Acimosis?” I ask. I don’t speak Cree, just the odd bits and pieces you learn at Cree culture class or from someone’s kohkom, but I’m pretty sure that acimosis means puppy. Only Yellow Dog isn’t exactly a puppy anymore. In fact, the hair around his muzzle is just as gray as the old man’s.
As you might have guessed, Jeremy is (at least part)* Cree. Heritage, for Jeremy, is a matter of course, like hunting and eating moose, and school with Cree language class and occasional visits from Elders. He is casual, even flippant.
It’s kind of sad that I couldn’t understand what the old man said, even though we live in the same community. I think there are only two kids in my class who speak Cree fluently, even though way more than half live on the rez. (p. 30)
Most of the time, anyway.
But working with Acimosis and learning from the old man feels real. And Jeremy is increasingly determined to train his own dog sled team, under the tutelage of the old man. Which means he needs to find suitable dogs (even though he has maybe $50 total, even though his mum doesn’t want dogs in the house). And he wants to avoid Justin.
Neither task is as easy as it sounds.
At different times earnest, nonchalant, serious, and goofy, Jeremy’s narrative voice makes for a story that is hard to put down. This might just be the contemporary rural, boy-meets-dog(s) story you didn’t realize you were missing.
*We never learn his mother’s ethnicity.