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.