Paulsen has moved so much and so many times that it is hard to pin down exactly where he is living at any given moment. For instance, as of this writing, an interviewer says that Paulsen lives in Wyoming (which is the likeliest possibility), while a publisher's blurb says that he is somehow in New Mexico and at the Pacific Ocean simultaneously— a feat of geographical flexibility that perhaps only Paulsen could pull off. Thus, the settings for My Life in Dog Years wander; adding to the confusion is that the stories are not necessarily presented in chronological order. The novel is constructed as though Paulsen is sitting with some folks and swapping dog stories with them, so the dogs come up in a casual order.
There is a glimpse of the Philippines. There, seven-year-old Gary saves a puppy from being raised for food in an upriver village. (He has seen a dog strangled and prepared for food while he is there.) He wanders with the dog into the jungle, along streets, more or less wherever the dog's nose says something interesting is to be found. In addition to finding ordinary stuff, such as the ever-present wreckage of war, he finds a cave with Japanese swords in it. Paulsen and the dog are inseparable, and he learns to smell and look at the world the way a dog does.
He also gives us a glimpse of his street life in the United States. Because his parents are "drunks," he pretty much has to survive on his own. The streets are hostile, populated by...
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Paulsen is a sort of poet of the wilderness, and he paints pictures of it in spare sentences that are vibrant with color, as in "The maples were red gold and filtered the sunlight so that you could almost taste the richness of the light." Paulsen does not waste words, but each story is amply described, with not only colors but smells and sounds making the background of the events he relates seem abundantly populated with life.
Although there is sadness in My Life in Dog Years—dogs die sooner than people do—the book is usually happy and uplifting; the stories of the dogs are stories of love with no strings attached, of affection for the sake of affection. The overall impression of the book is of someone sitting and telling some folks about his adventures with some of his favorite pets. The tone is relaxed, the events earthy, and the stories calculated to be pleasing.
This snippet from "Josh: The Smartest Dog in the World" is a good example of what Paulsen offers in My Life in Dog Years. He has spotted a rat in his barn that has run behind a sack:
I looked at him [Josh] and told him, "Get ready—get ready now. There's something there. Are you ready? Ready?" until he was excited enough to jump out of his skin, and then I moved the sack and the rat made its break. Josh grabbed it without hesitation but didn't kill it. Holding it in his mouth, he looked up at me in total disgust as if to say, "You...
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This book is primarily about a man's relationship with dogs. Paulsen makes few attempts to universalize his experiences; he does say that he believes dogs are necessary to civilized living, and he does find a trait or two in his dogs that he can find in other dogs—for instance, Josh's high intelligence seems to be found in other Border collies.
Of significance is the companionship Paulsen has found in dogs. He says flat out that they have saved his life. He begins My Life in Dog Years with a story about Cookie, a smart, alert sled dog that knows he has fallen through ice and reacts quickly to pull him out. He starts the book with Cookie because, without her, he says, he would be dead and unable to write the book. He seems to have needed a dog to save him in this heroic way on other occasions. Still, there seems to have been another way dogs have saved him—through their care. Snowball's constant companionship is a godsend for a lonely little boy in a place he does not understand; it is no wonder that Paulsen remembers Snowball as if she were alive only yesterday. Then there is Dirk, a beatup dog that attaches himself to Paulsen for a hamburger and then frightens away the thugs who are compounding the difficulty of the boy's already very difficult life. Dirk is also bodyguard and companion, helping to make loneliness less lonely. The same goes for Ike, who acts like Paulsen's friend, an equal who chooses to spend time with Paulsen. These sorts of...
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Topics for Discussion
1. What was the most important thing Snowball gave Paulsen? Why would Snowball remain fresh in his memory fifty years later?
2. Why does Paulsen regard Ike as a friend, not as a pet?
3. Why does Paulsen leave Dirk at the farm rather than take the dog with him?
4. What does Rex get out of the work he does?
5. Is "Caesar: The Giant" a funny or a sad story?
6. Why does Fred's eating tomatoes mean to Paulsen that "Fred had won"?
7. Why does Paulsen say that Quincy "should have been named White Fang"?
8. Why would Paulsen's dogs remember the words "Dairy Queen" and "DQ"? What does this say about Paulsen's relationship with his dogs?
9. Why does Paulsen say that Josh is "like a spirit, like an extension of my mind"? How does Josh's behavior illustrate this?
10. Why does Paulsen think that dogs are "mandatory for decent human life"?
11. What overall impression does My Life in Dog Years give of how dogs have shaped Paulsen's life?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Who was Jack London? What dog stories did he write? Were any like those in My Life in Dog Years? Why would Paulsen refer to him?
2. Who is White Fang? From what book? Write a book report on it.
3. Who were pin setters? Where did they work? What were their jobs? What were they paid? In what years were pin setters needed?
4. Paulsen mentions "Border collie field trials." What are these? Who competes in them? What are the rules? Where are they held?
5. For a time Paulsen has the companionship of Ike, a dog trained for duck hunting. What sorts of dogs are good for duck hunting? How are they trained? How do a dog and a duck hunter work together?
6. Paulsen says that he could not walk around without treading on spent cartridges and other relics of the war when he was a child living in the Philippines. What happened in the Philippines during World War II that would have left the islands covered in wrecked military gear?
7. Paulsen's father was posted in the Philippines after World War II. What was life like in the Philippines in the first few years after the surrender of Japan?
8. What is the history of Great Danes? What are their origins? What makes them special?
9. What is the history of Border collies? What are their origins? What makes them special?
10. Quincy is an abandoned dog. How many dogs are abandoned in a year in the United States? Why are they...
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Eastern Sun, Winter Moon (please see separate entry) offers a fuller account of Paulsen's life in the Philippines and Snowball than does My Life in Dog Years. Paulsen says that the place was insane, and it certainly seems to have been. Destruction was everywhere, and the leavings of the military conflict were always underfoot. The book can be read as an adventure or as the story of a family's dissolution. Much of young Paulsen's desperate loneliness comes through.
Happier memories form the bases for Father Water, Mother Woods: Essays on Fishing and Hunting in the North Woods, Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod, and Puppies, Dogs, and Blue Northers: Reflections on Being Raised by a Pack of Sled Dogs. Paulsen has a good sense of humor, and these books display it, but they also capture some of the majesty of the North American wilderness and are fine tales of adventure. Paulsen mentions his experience racing in the Iditarod in My Life in Dog Years; Winterdance fills in the details. Puppies, Dogs, and Blue Northers has somewhat more adult themes than My Life in Dog Years but is good reading nonetheless.
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For Further Reference
Buchholz, Rachel. "My Life's Work: Author." Boys' Life 85, 12 (December 1995): 28-30. Discusses Paulsen's use of his personal experiences in his fiction.
Deveraux, Elizabeth. "Gary Paulsen: A Taste for Adventure and an Obsessive Work Ethic Are This Versatile Writer's Hallmarks." Publishers Weekly 241, 13 (March 28, 1994): 70-71. Mentions Paulsen's participation in the Iditarod.
Diehl, Digby. "Author, Author!" Modern Maturity 38, 4 (July-August 1995): 12. A profile of Paulsen.
Gale, David. "The Maximum Expression of Being Human." School Library Journal 43, 6 (June 1997): 24-29. Commentary on Paulsen's career, with an interview.
Paulsen, Gary. "The...
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