"The Social Network of the South"
During periodic bursts of housekeeping frenzy, I have given away countless books from our kids’ rooms, replacing board books with picture books, chapter books with textbooks, keeping only the favorites. When I glance at the titles that remain, I think of when bedtime meant reading stories about fire trucks and puppies, or giggling along with the rhyming magic of Dr. Seuss or Madeline. During the Harry Potter years, all four of us gathered nightly, reluctant to stop reading at the agreed-upon bedtime. Amidst all the classics that I’ve held onto to, though, is a slim hardback, My Dog Skip, which is my favorite from this fleeting time in our family’s life.
Written by Willie Morris, the copy I own has a watercolor picture on the cover of a boy (bat and glove nearby) hugging his tan and white dog. Each of the eleven chapters is illustrated with sketches of the dog and the boy growing older over 122 pages of text.
It is a coming-of-age story about Morris’ own childhood in Yazoo City, Mississippi, evoking a long-ago time in the small-town south. With masterful storytelling that captivated me and our two young children, Morris told tales about his southern upbringing, long before he become an author and magazine editor in New York.
The star of the book was, of course, Morris’ dog, Skip, whose adventures and scrapes with danger kept us wanting to read ahead to make sure Skip would be alright. The fox terrier was extraordinary well-trained, ever-present at Morris’ side. Skip gets the credit for helping him blossom from a shy only-child to a college graduate and recipient of a Rhodes scholarship.
It is not hard to understand why I feel so attached to the book, especially in retrospect:
The protagonist is a baseball-loving boy who gets his own dog at nine. Our son also adored baseball and got his dog, Argus, at six. The oversized chocolate Labrador served as his childhood buddy, too. Morris’ attachment to his dog never wavered, even as he left for college at the University of Texas, and then, way beyond Yazoo City, to Oxford University.
The book closes after Morris has learned of Skip’s death while he was studying in England:
Walking alone in the teasing rain, I remembered our days together on this earth. The dog of your boyhood teaches you a great deal about friendship, and love, and death: Old Skip was my brother. They had buried him under our elm tree, they said – yet this was not totally true. For he really lay buried in my heart.
Argus also died during our son’s collegiate years. Like Skip, I believe he taught our son lessons of “friendship, and love, and death.” He will most-likely own other dogs during his life but there will never be another one exactly like the Argus, the dog of his childhood.
Photo is from Random House, publisher of the book (1995) which was made into a movie (2000) starring Frankie Muniz, above, Diane Lane, Luke Wilson and Kevin Bacon.