My Life in Dog Years by Gary Paulsen

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Setting

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

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 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

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

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...

(The entire section is 1,854 words.)