Smokie – “a big, strong, fast black Labrador retriever” – came into now-retired university professor Rod Michalko’s life in 1992. Michalko, legally blind since childhood, experienced a dramatic change in his vision later in life, and after finding it increasingly difficult to get around, looked into getting a guide dog to assist. A visit to an Oakville, Ontario, guide dog training facility connected him with Smokie, and the pair soon became a team.
Michalko and Smokie spent a life-changing decade together, first in Toronto and then in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. Though Smokie died in June 2001, it’s clear that his wisdom and influence endure. Letters with Smokie: Blindness and More-than-Human Relations is not the first of Michalko’s books that features his former canine companion, but this one is partly written in the dog’s imagined voice.
The premise is unconventional; starting in September 2020, friend and colleague Dan Goodley would write Michalko a message that would prompt an imaginative correspondence between a long-deceased guide dog and a very much alive disability studies scholar in the U.K. (“There, amid the junk, was his short, sweet, and funny message. An email. From a dog,” writes Goodley.) In the world of the book, Goodley and “Smokie” exchange missives for seven months, passing the time during the pandemic, but also exploring a number of vital ideas around disability, difference, disturbance, and disruption.
“Not that long ago, Rod was going on to me about how he had more explanation in his life than most,” writes Smokie of Michalko (or rather, Michalko writes of himself). “He said that he was called on a lot to explain his blindness, but that sighted people were never called on to explain their sight.”
When Goodley and Smokie are not sparring about who is the best Beatle, they’re dissecting the fraught relationship between humans and animals, confronting grief and social injustice, and pondering some canine observations skewering human behaviour. “Humans always seem to find a banal way to express the richness of humanity,” Smokie opines. Smokie’s letters not only give readers insight into the unique relationship between a particular man and his guide dog, but also between humans and animals on a much larger scale.
For the most part, Letters with Smokie proves to be an interesting and innovative experiment. While it lacks a standard narrative through-line to ground it, the epistolary structure does allow the pair to get, as Smokie puts it, “downright philosophical.” Released from the constraints of narrative, or traditional academic inquiry, hefty concepts are served up with lighthearted humour and grace.
“When disability studies is doing a good job,” writes Goodley, “then it is creating new, enabling, exciting, loving feelings of disability.”Though not an academic text in the traditional sense, Letters with Smokie does address urgent philosophical questions with the weight they deserve. Delivered in an accessible, conversational tone, this book offers a balance between cultural analysis and man-and-dog camaraderie. The refreshing result is a dismantling of some of the more pervasive assumptions about disability and difference, and a loving portrait of a man and his beloved guide.