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Dogs and Underdogs: Finding Happiness at Both Ends of the Leash

by Elizabeth Abbott

Admirers of Toronto writer Elizabeth Abbott’s non-fiction may be surprised by her new book. While her previous titles – including A History of Marriage and Sugar: A Bittersweet History – were characterized by academic exuberance and an often staggering range, her new book is a smaller, more intimate work. Dogs and Underdogs draws on Abbott’s lifelong love of, and experiences with, a succession of canine companions. The author expands her focus to include broader material about, for example, a training program that pairs dogs with volunteers in prison and a push to adopt dogs displaced by the war in Serbia.

Dogs and Underdogs (Elizabeth Abbott) coverAbbott’s love of dogs is clear, and serves as the connective strand running through Dogs and Underdogs. The book begins with Abbott’s account of her attempt to rescue Tommy, a dog she left behind when she was forced to flee Haiti in 1988. While that initial sequence, which takes up the first quarter of the book, is harrowing and immersive, the remainder of the volume suffers, especially in comparison.

This is largely due to Abbott’s close proximity to her material. In the introduction, she calls the writing of Dogs and Underdogs “unfinished business,” and characterizes the volume as “a tribute and memorial” to Tommy, to her other dogs, “and to all the rescuers [she has] met along the way.” This results in little more than snapshots of rescued dogs, how they suffered, and who ultimately adopted them, filtered through a lens of unearned sentimentality and borderline anthropomorphosis.

The book will likely resonate for anyone who has ever loved a dog, but in the main it fails to connect. It is too personal, too inwardly driven, never contextualizing the significance of these interspecies relationships on anything other than an emotional level. Abbott’s passion for dogs is clear, but the intensity of that passion makes it seem as if the book was written for herself, rather than for an audience of outside readers.