Church of the Dog.
The basic plot of Church of the Dog is solid enough – free spirit Mara O’Shaugnessey dumps a crap boyfriend so cheap he charged her gas money for driving her to the hospital when she became seriously ill, and takes a job as an art teacher in rural Oregon. She rents a little shack on the property of Edith and Earl, ranchers who have been married for 60 years, and fixes up the shack with stained glass windows and crazy artwork, and it is re-christened the Church of the Dog. As Mara gets to know the couple, helping them out in the house and on the ranch, she grows close to them, as well as their drifter grandson Dan, who comes home from his seasonal job as an Alaskan fisherman, and the four of them learn to overcome personal tragedy and redefine happiness and the meaning of family.
What undid it for me was the somewhat syrupy, New Age coating author Kaya McLaren saddled Mara with. Mara is one of those poseur-hippies that see auras and shrink tumors by the power of sending energy beams of pure light at people. Plus, she travels around in her dreams and horns in on other people’s dreams and everybody wakes up and don’t seem particularly thrown by the fact that an entire group of people dreaming the same dream NEVER EVER HAPPENS AND IS THEREFORE ALARMINGLY WEIRD.
If this talent that Mara has is deliberately supernatural, and an interview with the author in the back of the book indicates that it is, why are the rest of the characters treating it like it is no more unusual than being double-jointed or having an extra finger?
I have known many, many people who describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious,” and this talk of auras and surrounding yourself with protective colors is stuff I have heard from them practically verbatim, so Mara struck me more as typical than supernatural, and those who don't buy into the New Age lifestyle quickly tune those who do, at least when they begin going on and on about curing cancer with healing vibes.
Granted, Mara is likeable, and McLaren wisely gives her a youthful playfulness and loyalty that are appealing to the aging Earl and Edith, who never fully recovered from the loss of their son in a car accident, leaving behind a baby they had to raise. However, I could have done without the myriad discussions between the characters about The Meaning of Womanhood, which focused largely around the opinion that women were happier when their choices were fewer, and the Ethics of Vegetarian Ranching.
The ranching aspect of the book, which is grounded firmly in reality and no calves were medically assisted by angels or healing light of any kind, still troubled me in spots. For example, rancher Earl mentions that his cows “get good feed…corn and barley silage supplemented with vitamins, minerals, and protein.”
Er. That’s not good feed. Corn is an economically sound decision, but eventually it throws off the balance in the cows’ rumen, making it more acidic and burning a hole in their stomach lining. The corn fed cows that go to slaughter are going to die from the corn ingestion if they aren’t slaughtered first. What's best for cows is actually grass, although I wouldn't expect the cows to be fed grass on Earl's farm or any other.
The author interviewed a rancher to get the details of life on a ranch, and I have no doubt this is the information she was given, and that it is accurate information about what cattle are fed. Virtually all beef in the United States is corn fed. Corn is good in that it makes the cows get fatter faster and it’s cheaper, but bad in that it sickens the cow, causing it to need all those controversial antibiotics. (Aha? I’m a flaky, hippie vegetarian, too! Now you know too much about me, and I have no choice but to smite you with my angry aura.)
It's little tidbits like this, and in another spot where she mentions that dreadlocks grow mold if you live in a wet climate. I asked one of my dread-wearing work colleagues about this, and was told this is not true. If dreads are always damp, then yes, but most Americans live indoors, even those in wet climates, and even wet climate dreads dry out.
This sort of thing was slightly confusing, because I couldn't tell whether I was supposed to take this information as fact, or if the narrator was unreliable and I should assume the characters had their own specific agenda in relating this information that didn't fit with truth.
By the end of the book, I was left with the impression that what was supposed to be supernatural was actually not so supernatural, but a fairly accurate portrayal of a real person, and what was supposed to be down to earth and factual seemed to be untrue.
Picky, picky, picky, okay. All pickiness aside, there are things McLaren writes about incredibly well, such as love and loss. You would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by her deft, tender handling of the last days of the elderly Edith and Earl’s lifelong love story, and during this part of the book the pages flew by. So if New Age mysticism is okay by you, Church of the Dog will be a good way to spend a rainy afternoon. Burn some sage and get on with it. If it isn’t, you may be better off looking elsewhere.
Church of the Dog
by Kaya McLaren
May, 2008 by Penguin
Saturday, December 27, 2008
Church of the Dog.