A Man of His Own by Susan Wilson

Set in the years surrounding World War II, this novel tells the story of four characters: Rick Stanton, a ball player on the cusp of making it big; his wife Francesca; Keller, an orphan who enlists in the military in order to find a future; and last but not least, Pax, the devoted German Shepherd mix who ties the three humans together. From the day Rick finds Pax as a stray puppy in an alley, the two of them are inseparable. Their two-member pack expands to include Francesca when Rick falls in love with her, and for a time the three are happy.

Then World War II intervenes. Rick is drafted, and he and Francesca volunteer Pax for the military’s Dogs for Defense program, where the dog is paired with Keller. As they help each other survive in combat situations, Keller and Pax develop an intense bond. Pax is the only true family Keller has ever had, the only thing he’s ever loved or received affection from, and at the end of the war he finds himself conflicted about returning Pax to the blissful domestic life the dog had previously known.

Except, the life Keller brings Pax back to is no longer so full of bliss. Rick has not returned from the war unscathed; crippled in both body and spirit, he is dependent upon Francesca for his every need. In part to avoid the issue of who Pax’s true owner is, Keller becomes Rick’s live-in aide, and Pax is able to split his time between the two men he loves the most. It falls to the dog to keep this new and awkward pack together, and ultimately to help each person heal from his or her wounds.

Although this book is historical fiction, the period details never distract from the heart of the story: the relationships between the three humans and one dog. Through alternating points of view, we get to watch how each character responds to the many challenges that result from their peculiar domestic situation.

Yes, this is a dog story. But it is also a story about the toll war takes on both soldiers and their spouses, about the difficulties veterans face while trying to reintegrate into civilian life, and about how the connection between man and companion animal can help ease those difficulties. Like many dog stories, it has its bittersweet aspects, but it is ultimately an uplifting tale. Susan Wilson uses direct and unpretentious language to convey her characters’ inner lives — a style particularly well-suited to Pax’s chapters. Wilson does an excellent job at portraying the canine thought process. Pax’s point of view is neither too human nor too alien, and will be instantly recognizable to any dog-owner. Lovers of canine-centered fiction will find much to enjoy in this novel.

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