Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Dewey Readmore Books

Memoirs. It seems like there's a certain "hot topic" every couple of years. Several years ago, books about buying a house/farm in France or Italy were all the rage. So were books about stressed- out professionals who threw up their hands, quit the rat race, and literally bought the farm.

Of course, if you do a stunt or experiment, whether it's living like an Old Testament patriarch for a year, eating only self-grown or locally grown products, living a centuries-old lifestyle, or cooking your way through Julia Child's recipes, you might have an audience as well.

However, the current kings and queens of the memoir world seem to be four legged creatures. And why not? Pet products have never been more diverse and popular. Doggy day care, pet superstores, pet therapists, and magazines devoted to the care of dogs and cats don't get a second glance anymore. This type of attention to our pets is extraordinary. Why wouldn't we want to write about their greatness-and why wouldn't we want to read books about fantastic animals, one after the other?

Now, it has to be said that you have to have a "hook" for your pet memoir. Sometimes it's because your dog lives an unorthodox life. Or it's because your dog is a good "bad dog". Or you have a parrot, a barn owl, a pig,a buffalo, or a horse.

What about the cat memoirs? Sure, it's not like there aren't any out there. But when you compare the number of dog memoirs to cat memoirs, it's pretty obvious which ones get more spilled ink. Perhaps it's because you have to be somewhat narcissistic to write about your own life, and somewhat less to write about your own pet. We have trained dogs to work for us, to obey us, to defend our property and our lives, and to assist us during wartime. We have trained them to assist those with blindness, deafness, epilepsy, and to even sniff out cancer. We have even bred dogs to be nothing more than constant companions. All this has been to our benefit and to the dog's expense. A dog's devotion is surely a reflection of our wonderfulness. We love dogs in part because of the way they love us.

On the other hand, cats can help us with our rodent problems. Oh, sure, you can occasionally find one that dials 9-1-1. But as the saying goes: dogs have owners, cats have staff. Even though the domestic cat has graced us with its presence in exchange for regular meals, affection on its own terms, and a warm bed, there still remains an element of the wild in cats that only appears in a select few breeds of dogs. For cat lovers, a cat's appeal is not in what it can be trained to do (since it doesn't have the desire to please as do many, but not all, dogs, a cat that performs on demand is indeed a curiosity!), but in its very independence, its curiosity, its beauty, and its chance to unexpectedly transform lives.

That's exactly what happened to a small frostbitten kitten shoved into Spencer (IA) Public Library's drop box on a bitterly cold January night, and the library staff and community that welcomed him into their library and hearts. After being found by library director Vicky Myron and being approved by the library board, Dewey became a mainstay in the town's library (preferably in adult nonfiction, in which he best observed all areas of the library, although the children's room during story time was also a favorite, and anyone who held a meeting in the meeting room was expected to include Dewey as the library's ambassador, or face a barrage of pitiful meows). Although library cats aren't that unusual (it was common for many libraries-and bookstores-to keep cats, until society became more litigious), Dewey interacted with the public in ways that attracted worldwide attention and admiration.

However, the best kind of attention and admiration came from the local community. Like many agricultural towns in the Midwest, Spencer was hit very hard by the massive farm foreclosures in the 1980s. Local plants pulled out of the area, taking many jobs with them. Families moved away in search of more opportunities. The library helped out the best it could, by offering resume writing books, job banks, and computers on which to write resumes and search for jobs. It was Dewey's presence, however, that not only drew more people to the library (and kept them returning), but also drew the fractious staff together.

This is not just an amusing story of a special cat, and it's not a pet memoir in the typical sense. It's also very much the story of a library and a community in transition, both trying to remain progressive and relevant to its citizens. It's also Myron's personal story (to a lesser extent) of single motherhood, struggle with illnesses, and her personal losses. Myron alternates between adorable anecdotes about Dewey and more somber accounts of her alcoholic husband, her occasional struggles with city officials, and bittersweet memories of her brothers and parents. When I read pet memoirs, the personal lives of the humans can annoyingly get in the way of the main story. Myron never allows that to happen, which makes this one of the better animal memoirs out there. Even though she occasionally departs to write about her own issues and experiences, Dewey is never far from the story.

The cost of loving and being loved by a pet is the unfairness of its (usually) short lifespan, compared to ours. Since most pet memoirs, it seems, are written after the fact, Dewey's senior years are included. Have tissue ready. Myron has written a terrific story that will be loved by cat lovers, library lovers, small town lovers, and anyone who can use a heart-warming story (isn't that most of us nowadays?).

Dewey is memorialized on the Spencer Public Library's website. He even has a Facebook account.

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