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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 600

Shiloh is a poignant, realistic story of a boy and a dog and the circumstances that bring them together. Yet, there is more to the story of Marty Preston, an eleven-year-old who befriends a stray, abused dog. This protagonist is faced with a moral decision when he does not want to return the abused beagle to its rightful but mean owner, Judd Travers. He wants to fulfill the hill country code of honor of not lying, not cheating, and showing respect for others’ rights. The novel is set in the mountains of West Virginia. Although the events could happen in almost any rural area, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor captures the flavor of the area through the rich West Virginia dialect of Marty, the narrator of the story. The tale covers a brief time span and is written in short, fast-paced chapters.

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Marty Preston wants a pet, preferably a dog, but his poverty-stricken parents cannot afford another mouth to feed. One Sunday afternoon, Marty is thrilled when a beagle follows him home from the Old Shiloh schoolhouse. His father, aware that Judd Travers, a mean, bewhiskered, tobacco-chewing neighbor recently acquired a new hunting dog, insists that the beagle be returned. Together, Marty and his father take the dog to its owner, who, after kicking it, promises to “whup the daylights out of him” if he wanders off again. As Marty accompanies his father on his mail route, he gathers aluminum cans for recycling money in hopes of offering to buy Shiloh, the name that he has given the beagle.

Another unpleasant encounter with Judd further instills in Marty the desire to have Shiloh for himself. When the dog again finds his way to the Preston house, Marty decides to hide Shiloh on the hillside, vowing that “Judd Travers is never going to kick you again.” Marty builds a pen from some old chicken wire, sneaks food to the dog twice a day, and runs in the fields with him, all the time keeping the truth of Shiloh’s whereabouts from his parents, sisters, and Judd.

One evening, his mother discovers Marty with Shiloh. They agree not to tell his father until morning, but that evening a German Shepherd attacks Shiloh, hurting him badly. Ray Preston and Marty take Shiloh to Doc Murphy, the local practitioner, who tends to the dog’s wounded leg and ear. Before Marty can return Shiloh to Judd, as his father demands he must do, Judd discovers that the Prestons have the dog. He agrees to let Marty keep the dog until the weekend, when the wound will have healed.

Early Sunday morning, Marty decides to tell Judd Travers that he is not giving Shiloh back. Crossing the field that separates their houses, he spots Judd shooting a deer out of season. Marty uses this event as bargaining leverage—he will not report the killing to the game warden in return for custody of Shiloh. Judd does not accept this reasoning but agrees to allow Marty to work twenty hours to earn Shiloh. When the hours are almost completed, Judd claims that the paper on which the deal is written is worthless because there was no witness. While Marty continues to fulfill his end of the bargain, Judd reveals information about his difficult childhood. Learning that Judd was abused as a child, Marty begins to understand and see Judd in a different light. Upon completion of the twenty hours, Judd hands Marty a dog collar, thus relinquishing ownership of Shiloh. Readers are left to draw their own conclusions as to why Judd has had a change of heart.

Setting

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While walking in the tiny community of Shiloh, West Virginia, Naylor saw the dog she wrote about in this story. Instead of inventing a setting for the book, she chose to use the exact location where she saw the abandoned animal. She incorporated in her novel the old grist mill, the river road, and the school house that she passed on her walk. She accurately described the town of Friendly, located near Sistersville and midway between Wheeling and Parkersburg. To make sure she correctly portrayed the area, Naylor carefully researched the location, writing to West Virginia agencies that could give her information on economic diversity and minute details of the area. She discovered the kind of vehicle a postman would drive and the length of his route in the West Virginia hills, so that she could accurately portray Marty's father.

In Shiloh, Marty, his parents, and two younger sisters, live in a four-room house surrounded on three sides by hills outside of Friendly in Tyler County, West Virginia. The rural setting allows Marty the opportunity to hide the mistreated dog. This contemporary story takes place in the heat of July and August while Marty is out of school for summer vacation.

Literary Qualities

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Shiloh is written in first-person present tense, with Marty as the narrator. Although the unusual style takes a few pages to get used to, soon the reader skims over the "I say" and "Ma tells me" phrasings and gets into the story.

Naylor employs a mild dialect, dropping the final "g" on words such as "doin'," "lookin'," and "laughin'." More effective in portraying the hill people of Friendly are the regional habits she highlights: Marty's sister dipping her bread in cold tea; eating fried rabbit; the neighbors' ritual of passing the time of day before getting down to the business at hand; and the postal customers leaving food in the mailboxes for Ray Preston. Naylor's use of colloquialisms also enhances the tone of the story. "Whopping" for "whipping" and Shiloh's "legs going lickety-split" add a Southern flavor to the story.

Complex characterization is a Naylor trademark. Through subtle hints the reader gets an overall picture of an individual character. Since Marty is the narrator, all characters are seen through his eyes. His love for his mother, his respect for his dad, his dislike for Judd, his relationship with his sisters, are all detailed in his expressions and how he treats these individuals.

Social Sensitivity

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Class distinction is apparent in Naylor's novel in the contrast between Marty's four-room home and his friend David Howard's two-story house (four story if he counts the attic and basement) in Friendly. When Marty tells his mother that David's house has a room for books and a computer, a sun room for plants, and a room for company, she says that's three rooms too many. That was the only time Marty ever heard envy in his mother's voice.

Christianity is a dominant part of Marty's life. When the lies get too heavy for him and he realizes he will go to hell for them, he remembers that his grandmother told him that animals do not go to heaven. If Shiloh cannot get into heaven, Marty figures he would run away from heaven himself. He prays on several occasions, asking God's guidance and understanding for his dishonesty. He also struggles with what he believes God would do in a similar situation. He discovers that right and wrong are not black-and-white issues.

For Further Reference

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Chevalier, Tracy, ed. Twentieth-Century Children's Writers. Chicago: St. James Press, 1989. John D. Stahl lists Naylor's books and provides an overview of her writing. He believes her characters have "depth, individuality, and complexity."

Commire, Anne, ed. Something about the Author. Vol. 12. Detroit: Gale Research, 1977. This article presents a short autobiographical section.

——. Something About the Author. Vol. 66. Detroit: Gale Research, 1991. This is a much longer and more detailed interview than in the earlier volume.

Evory, Ann, and Linda Metzger, eds. Contemporary Authors. New Revision Series. Vol. 8. Detroit: Gale Research, 1983. This article contains a brief biography of Naylor and lists her works.

Frederick, Heather Vogel. "Shiloh." Christian Science Monitor (November 1, 1991): 11. The reviewer believes this book "would be an excellent choice as a family read-aloud."

Hearne, Betsy. "Shiloh." Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (October, 1991): 45. In this favorable review, Hearne states that "readers will be absorbed by the suspenseful plot, which will leave them with some memorable characterizations as well as several intriguing ethical questions."

Holtze, Sally Holmes, ed. Fifth Book of Junior Authors and Illustrators. New York: H.W. Wilson, 1983. The volume presents an autobiographical sketch of Naylor and her philosophy on writing.

Mandel, Ellen. "Shiloh." Booklist (December 1, 1991): 695. "A moving and powerful look at the best and the worst of human nature," says this reviewer.

Naylor, Phyllis Reynolds. "Newbery Acceptance Speech." Horn Book Magazine (July/August 1992): 404-411. Naylor won the 1992 Newbery Medal for Shiloh. She delivered her speech at the annual meeting of the American Library Association.

Naylor, Rex. "Phyllis Reynolds Naylor." Horn Book Magazine (July/August 1992): 412-415. The author's husband gives his view of his wife's work.

Straub, Deborah A., ed. Contemporary Authors. New Revision Series. Vol. 24. Detroit: Gale Research, 1988. This article lists Naylor's works and awards and includes an autobiographical sketch.

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