Themes and Characters

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 701

Marty Preston is an eleven-year-old boy who's responsible enough to be trusted with a twenty-two caliber rifle for hunting. He takes care of his younger sisters as a matter of course. Being a part of a family requires his devotion, obligations, and unselfish love. When he finds a dog that he knows has been mistreated, his sense of justice and loyalty to his family are challenged. Once he decides to keep the dog, the lies, which go against his upbringing and his conscience, begin. He lies to his family, to his friend, to the grocery man, to the owner of the dog, and he pays the penalty for lying.

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Shiloh is a two-year-old male beagle hound, white with brown and black spots, trained for hunting rabbits and small game. When Marty first spots him, Shiloh is rib-showing lean and strangely silent, as if he has had his bark beaten out of him. Although forced to take the dog back to his owner the first time he sees him, the second time Marty sees Shiloh, he decides to keep him for his own instead of returning him to a master who kicks him and starves him.

Judd Travers is a man of around thirty years who owns four hunting dogs, including Shiloh. He was abused as a child and has transferred that abuse to his animals. Marty does not like him because Judd once cheated the storekeeper out of money, he hunts deer out of season, and he mistreats his dogs. On the other hand, Ray Preston, Marty's father, is a man of principle and a good father and husband. He delivers mail out of the Friendly and Sistersville post offices and knows nearly everyone in the area. He abides by the unspoken rule that a neighbor does not get involved in another neighbor's business. Marty's mother, referred to as "Ma" throughout the story, is a smart, hardworking woman. When she discovers the dog in Marty's hideout, she talks to him about trust. Through her, Marty sees the repercussions of his lies.

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Latest answer posted February 18, 2020, 7:07 pm (UTC)

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Marty is faced with a moral dilemma. He wants to protect the dog from Judd Travers's abuse. He also knows it is dishonest to lie about having a dog that does not belong to him. He prays about it: "Jesus," I whisper finally, "which you want me to do? Be one hundred percent honest and carry that dog back to Judd so that one of your creatures can be kicked and starved all over again, or keep him here and fatten him up to glorify your creation?'"

Naylor hopes her reader will think about justice as he reads her book. She says,

If he sees the world as black and white, he may develop knee-jerk reactions to key words or slogans. If he determines that the end justifies the means, his ethics may tend to slip and slide. But if he sees that much of life is more complex than he thought, that each problem must be approached in its unique situation, and that he must base his actions not only upon his family's values but also upon his own innate sense of what is true and good, then he will get a taste of what being an adult really means.

Marty makes a pact with Judd to work off the cost of the dog—twenty hours of work at two dollars an hour. Marty hoes the garden, splits and stacks wood, washes down the trailer and the windows, cuts weeds, weeds the bean patch, and digs a ditch. After several days Judd taunts Marty and reneges on the deal. The bargain was not witnessed, he tells Marty. Marty is working for nothing. Although Marty understands that what Judd says is true, he returns to work out the full hours of his contract. He will fulfill his part of the deal, not giving Judd ammunition to say that Marty failed to uphold his end of the bargain. After all his lies, Marty is determined to teach Judd a lesson about honesty, fairness, and justice. By the end of the forty hours, the two enemies are not friends, but have achieved a bit of understanding and respect for each other.

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