Reading with Pearl & Rose: Lassie Come-Home

Lassie Come-Home by Eric Knight (Grosset & Dunlap, 1940)

Rather than a regular book review, this will be more about our experience of reading a book as a family. For reference, my kids are 7 and 4 years old.

Lassie Come-Home is the first chapter book I ever remember reading on my own. I recall getting it from the library in the first grade and feeling so proud of myself for reading such a big kid chapter book. I went on to adore reading stories of dogs having adventures (Jim Kjelgaard was a favourite). However, reading it now as an adult, out loud to my own first grader, I am doubtful of my own memory. I’m sure I read the book but I can’t imagine I really understood much of it.

We read this book as a family, reading out loud to the girls before bed. They like animals too and dogs especially so they were keen to hear about Lassie’s adventures. It was fun to talk about whether or not any of the dogs we know would undertake such a journey. (Probably not.) And, having recently read The Secret Garden, I think they may now have a skewed idea of Yorkshire’s place and importance in the wide world.

Lassie is not exactly a story that stands up to a modern day re-reading though. It’s certainly not a children’s story as we expect children’s stories to be today – there is death and violence and poverty and familial troubles. It’s a forward-moving story in that Lassie is constantly pushing southward to return to her family but it isn’t necessarily an action-packed one. A lot of the story is simply Lassie walking. We get glimpses of the people and animals she meets across the way and Knight does a nice job of characterizing them. From the travelling peddler who Lassie joins for a while and protects when his own dog is brutally killed to the posh young lady who steps in when Lassie is captured by the dog catcher. One scene that jumped out at me (and likely wouldn’t have as a kid) is when Lassie is mistaken for a dog who has been killing sheep. The shepherds lie in wait to kill this dog and protect their flock and when Lassie passes through, their own dogs go out to attack her. One shepherd has the opportunity to shoot Lassie but hesitates because her bravery reminds him of something he witnessed in the war.

Among the things that I didn’t pick up on at the age of six and I doubt my girls did either was the background of Lassie’s family in Yorkshire and exactly why they sold her at the beginning of the book. The father, Sam, has lost his job and like many of the men in their town who are newly unemployed is sinking into poverty and apathy. Like my own kids, his son Joe doesn’t understand what’s happened but feels the change in his parents. His home is no longer a safe and happy place and he comes to believe that this is due to Lassie’s absence, rather than recognizing his dog’s absence as a symptom of a larger economic situation. Lassie is, in fact, a stand in for the health and happiness of the entire village.

Joe doesn’t understand and my kids didn’t either but all kids understand the beauty and bravery of Lassie’s journey. Dated though it may be, there is something timeless about Lassie Come-Home, perhaps because it speaks to a human desire for wholeness and for home.

14 thoughts on “Reading with Pearl & Rose: Lassie Come-Home”

  1. I read the Lassie books as a child, too but can’t remember much about them. Lassie being mistaken for a sheep-killer sounded familiar, though.
    Are your children questioning the sections of plot that are different to modern stories?

    1. They had lots of questions about why the family had to sell Lassie and what it meant for Sam to lose his job. But we’ve read a lot of older stories with them now so they seem used to those old-fashioned elements. I usually edit a bit as I read aloud. Here I skipped over a part where Joe’s mother hits him and I modify outdated language about other ethnicities.

    2. I hadn’t thought of you being able to edit as you read aloud, but that makes sense.
      I miss having small children to read aloud to and the questions they raise. I’m glad you’re getting the chance to enjoy children’s books again, too.

  2. I went back in time with this article. Such were the days of the “TV Lassie.” I remember how my sister and brother argued when at times they changed the collie in some episodes. The bark and look was not the same. I can understand how reading this book as an adult is different!!!

    1. That’s a great memory! I wonder how many different dogs they had to use? Kids would definitely notice those little differences!

    2. You know what totally broke my heart is when I was a kid one of my favorite movies was Milo and Otis, the story of a cat that gets whisked downriver away from his farm, and it’s up to his best friend, a dog, to save him and bring him home. The broken heart part? I learned that several animals died in the making of that movie. The cat was a plain orange tabby, and the dog was a pug, and those breeds tend to all look the same. So, they throw several cats off a waterfall and just keep replacing them until the shot is a success. OMG.

    3. What!!! This is heartbreaking. Why is it that it takes so much death and tragedy to bring about change. Man’s humanity and tragedy seem to cross each other sometimes in such awful paths.

  3. I couldn’t read this as a kid – an early abandonment. From the age of three, when I was traumatised by a picture book about a foal whose mother was taken away from him, I have always had real problems with animal in jeopardy books. Black Beauty is another that I never made it through. I eventually stopped even trying to read them, and nobody telling me about happy endings could ever convince me! I’m glad your girls are able to enjoy them, since clearly many people count them as precious childhood memories!

    1. Just the other day a friend and I were discussing how we can’t bring ourselves to watch Dumbo again for that same reason. Lassie seems less traumatic to me, perhaps because Lassie herself always seems so in control of the situation. Though my girls did not some reassurances along the way that Lassie would make it home.

  4. I really enjoyed this post about your experiences of reading with your girls! I never read Lassie as a child (that I remember), but I agree that children’s books are very different now from at the time. Though I think even now the best children’s books can tackle tricky topics in accessible ways.

    1. Thank you! You’re right about children’s books tackling hard subjects. I loved the Ramona Quincy books as a kid and there is one about her dad losing his job that actually reminds me of Joe and his dad here. Kids need help dealing with these topics and books can be a great tool for that.

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