In a small Korean town, a hairy black mutt named Scraggly lives with the elderly junk shop owner Grandpa Screecher and his family. There are wonderful parallels between their lives as their relationship deepens over the years, and their story is a quiet meditation on love, loss and growing old together. Much like Grandpa Screecher has to bid goodbye to his son and grandchildren at the end of their visits, Scraggly can only watch helplessly as her siblings are put up for sale. Death and loss are practically constants in Scraggly’s life, and there are many scenes when I found myself emotionally enmeshed in what I objectively understand to be one of many unfortunate circumstances in life.
Hwang does a good job in making her animal characters’ emotions real. For example, when Hwang describes a mother dog yanking against her chain to lick her puppy’s wounds, we can almost feel the rough metal cut against our own neck, and when the mother howls in despair, we almost want to join her because the sense of helplessness is so strong.
We mostly follow Scraggly through her life, as she faces conflicts against the old cat next door, some territorial neighbourhood dogs and most especially a thieving dog breeder. The dog thief is a particularly dark and emotional subplot, since it’s the one that makes clearest the limitations of communication between dog and man, as Grandpa Screecher is unable to understand Scraggly’s warnings about the thief, and Scraggly’s anger leads her to turn against the human she most loves. I particularly liked Scraggly’s contentious relationship with the old cat, partly because as a cat person, I admittedly sympathized with the cat despite one horrible thing she did. But also partly because of the way the relationship evolved as both animals got older and the cat became more in need of companionship, even if it had to be from a dog.
The cat also says something that I think somewhat encapsulates the story as a whole:
“The young grow up and the old become exhausted. Only if you live through winter do you understand what it’s doing. Winter has many secrets.” [p. 39]
And indeed this book is a story of winters. Not that it’s a sad book necessarily, but there’s an inevitable movement in its series of changes and of seasons. I didn’t absolutely love this book, mostly because after a while all the various stuff happening to Scraggly just got a bit depressing to read about, and I felt that each minor uplift of hope came with a corresponding dip in fortune almost immediately after. But it is a sweet little book, and the illustrations are beautiful in their simplicity.
The tone of hope does ramp up towards the end, particularly with a couple of significant reunions. The ending is bittersweet at best, but it’s still been a lovely ride. The final few chapters are beautifully evocative, involving a winding staircase, an old cat who’d become a friend, an old man who wanted to help his grandkids pluck persimmons from a tree, and a loving scraggly mutt who has weathered many storms.
Thank you to Hachette Book Group Canada for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.