“The Mountaintop School for Dogs and Other Second Chances” – a novel by Ellen Cooney

"The Mountaintop School for Dogs and Other Second Chances" by Ellen Cooney (Photo courtesy of Hougton Mifflin Harcourt  http://www.hmhco.com)

“The Mountaintop School for Dogs and Other Second Chances” by Ellen Cooney (Photo courtesy of Hougton Mifflin Harcourt http://www.hmhco.com)

To be honest, I am not much of an animal lover. I’ve never had any pets (aside from the occasional goldfish I killed during childhood). I especially don’t like cats – I’m allergic to them and frankly, they scare me to death with their silent approaches and sudden leaps onto my lap. But dogs, yeah, I get people having dogs, although I doubt I’ll ever have one myself. With their shedding and funny smelling food, and cleaning up after them and taking them to the vet, I just don’t think I have the patience or the energy to take care of one properly. That would certainly make me a very bad dog owner. Come to think of it, it might actually be almost criminal to leave a dog in my care.

Of course, there are places for dogs who have suffered with bad owners. One such (fictional) place is the Sanctuary, a former ski lodge that is now a school for abandoned and abused dogs. That’s where Evie is going to learn how to train dogs, even though she’s never had a dog and never trained anything. Evie just wants to start a new chapter of her life, since most of the past 24 years have been pretty lousy. The elusive ad for becoming a dog trainer was just the type of bone Evie needed to get her teeth into, even if she had to lie to get accepted. When she gets there, she finds she’s the only trainee. Then the only person she can find when she gets there is Mrs. Auberchon, the woman who manages the Inn at the foot of the mountain, and works as the Sanctuary’s warden. But Mrs. Auberchon doesn’t want to get attached or involved; Evie will be going up the mountain soon, and she has enough to do between upkeep of the Inn and helping watch over the dogs via the cameras hooked up to her computer. This is “The Mountaintop School for Dogs and Other Second Chances” by Ellen Cooney.

As I said, I’m not a dog person, but when Cooney writes, that doesn’t matter one iota.Told mostly from Evie’s point of view, large parts of this story in the form of a lexicon of terms. Evie begins writing down these personal “crib-notes” while waiting for the call to go up the Sanctuary, and continues compiling them during her training. Evie gives each of these entries her own particular explanations together with the events – both past and present – that led her to define them in that way.

Through this interesting mechanic, Cooney portrays Evie with just the right amount of innocence of someone finding her footing that is also anxious to press on and learn something new. Evie uses experiences from her past as points of reference to help her understand both her training and her dogs, while Googling anything missing. And so, we soon realize that Evie has just as many wounds in need of healing as do the dogs the Sanctuary has rescued. Throughout this are the dogs that Evie trains as part of her lessons. Each one has a unique personality and slowly, Evie discovers how to deal with their various problems and her training glitches through the Sanctuary’s Zen-like educational approach.

Then there are the sections narrated by Mrs. Auberchon. These give us the full picture of what Evie doesn’t know or see about the Sanctuary. This also helps the reader see how these people are truly devoted to helping these animals after untold suffering, which in turn becomes their own type of therapy.

With this novel, Cooney gives us more than just a coming-of-age tale via dog training. No, there’s a whole lot more going on here. And as deep as this may sound, Cooney has given us a narrative with the lightest of touch. Evie speaks to us with a level of self-understanding and clarity that belies her youth while at the same time embodies it. Furthermore, as Evie’s training progresses, we can feel her opening up and becoming more and more comfortable in her own life and with her surroundings.

This story is also awash with splashes of humor that illustrate Cooney’s deep understanding of human nature, without ever being condescending or judgmental (except when it comes to dog abuse). In short, Cooney gives us a beautiful blend of thoughtfulness and playfulness, much like a growing puppy that wants to learn to behave properly, but needs to have fun in the process.

To be fair, I did find one tiny problem with this book; the story’s abrupt ending, which left me saying to myself “wait… is that it?” Those last lines of this novel truly left me wanting more; I was practically drooling to go on reading, which – come to think of it – might not be a drawback after all.

No, you don’t have to be a dog person to enjoy this book. I warn you, however, that this story might actually fool you into thinking that maybe you’ve always been a dog person, but just didn’t know it. On the other hand, if you’ve always been a dog person, this book will cement that conviction and make you proud of the fact. One way or another, if this book teaches us anything, it is that we need to learn how to understand ourselves, learn from our surroundings, and enjoy that process, for that can be mutually enriching for all involved. For all this, I have to highly recommend this book and give it a full five stars out of five.

“The Mountaintop School for Dogs and Other Second Chances” by Ellen Cooney is published by Hougton Mifflin Harcourt, release date August 5, 2014. My thanks to the author for sending me an advanced reader copy for this review.