My Life in Dog Years

by Gary Paulsen

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Setting

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 477

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.

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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.

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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 toughs with nothing better to do than loiter and beat up and rob little boys, something that happens often to Paulsen. A dog adopts him, however, and takes care of the toughs. Somehow, out of the bleakness, comes a happy ending: the dog finds a happy home on a farm where Paulsen works for a while.

Most of the settings are frontier ones. Paulsen and his wife (or wives—he has had three but does not distinguish them in My Life in Dog Years, so maybe only one, Ruth Wright, is mentioned in the stories) have lived long on the fringes of civilization, raising much of their own food—or trying to—and roughing it. Paulsen takes his dogs on his frequent adventures in the wilderness. On one such adventure, traveling to Alaska to race in the Iditarod, he acquires an already old, little dog that thinks nothing of roughing it; back home he will bury his teeth in the chest of a charging bear to protect Paulsen's wife. Curiously, this fierce little animal lives to a great age in spite of his uncompromising attitude toward larger creatures, even ones with bigger teeth. The frontier settings are rich in country odors, treacherous paths, near-deaths, and a bunch of dogs Paulsen could not live without.

Literary Qualities

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 320

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 fool—I've got a rat in my mouth," then turned sideways and spit it out—he distinctly made the sound ptui as he did it—and then walked away from me.

This is great fun, and the humor is universal enough that one does not have to be a dog lover to enjoy the book.

Social Sensitivity

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 527

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 interactions can be lifesaving, with the human giving as much as the dog. It seems likely that Paulsen saves Dirk's life, eventually taking the dog to the farm where he works and leaving Dirk behind there after his heart has healed.

Other social issues are touched on but not discussed in depth. There is the problem of unwanted pets and what to do about them. Paulsen adopts many, and he expresses contempt for whoever dumped Quincy by a road, left to be run over, to starve, or, as luck would have it, to be picked up by a dog lover. Human interactions with wildlife form some of the action in the stories. With Ike, Paulsen hunts ducks. In other stories he tries to create a balance between the needs of his family and the needs of the wild animals who live nearby. Raising chickens proves impossible because he does not kill the critters that eat them. His gardens are often raided, but instead of killing the raiders, he and his wife try to grow enough so that even after the raids they have food. This practice results in many pounds of excess tomatoes.

Paulsen's own experiences in the Philippines, on the streets in America, and with alcoholic parents all suggest social concerns, but he remains focused on his experiences with dogs and those concerns are not developed. Why there were idle thugs on the streets beating him up, and whether there were other youngsters hanging on to life one hamburger at a time as he was, are questions he does not explore.

For Further Reference

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 338

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 Booklist Interview: Gary Paulsen." Booklist (January 1, 1999): 864. In an interview by Stephanie Zvirin, Paulsen mentions the importance reading when he was young. "I was an 'at risk' kid, as they are called now, and a poor student," says Paulsen. About Soldier's Heart, he says, "It's truth I'm after. No part of the Civil War was nice."

——. Eastern Sun, Winter Moon: An Autobiographical Odyssey. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993. An account of Paulsen's life during World War II an in the Philippines. Its style is as blunt as that of Soldier's Heart. There is an analysis of Eastern Sun, Winter Moon in volume 8 of Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults.

——. "Write What You Are." Writer's Digest 74, 7 (July 1994): 42-15. In this interview by Cheryl Bartky, Paulsen talks about the experiences that are sources for his books.

Phillips, Carol Kolb. School Library Journal 44, 3 (March 1998): 238. Recommends My Life in Dog Years.

Publishers Weekly 244, 49 (December 1, 1997): 55. Says My Life in Dog Years is good. Roback, Diane. "Paulsen Inks Long-term Deal with HB." Publishers Weekly 240, 6 (February 8, 1993): 10. About Paulsen's relationship with Harcourt Brace.

Weidt, Maryann N. "The Fortunes of Poverty." Writer's Digest 72, 1 (January 1992): 8. According to Paulsen, the best writing advice is "learn to live with poverty."

Zvirin, Stephanie. Booklist 94, 9-10 (January 1, 1998): 799. Zvirin says of My Life in Dog Years: "Paulsen's style has been smoother, but this honest, unpretentious celebration of dogs further entrenches his reputation as an author who is as successful at writing nonfiction as he is at writing novels."

——. Booklist 95, 15 (April 1, 1999): 1382. Recommends My Life in Dog Years's "sometimes hilarious, sometimes poignant accounts."

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