In “What a Dog Knows,” author Susan Wilson gives us an entirely relatable main character who is not a young woman, and who has been dealt a tough hand since birth. While she is a grandmother, she is certainly not your typical grandmother, although she does, on occasion, knit. Ruby Heartwood, formerly known as Mary Jones, was left at a Canadian convent as an infant. Her only family is a daughter, conceived after Ruby was raped as a young teenager, and a dog who found shelter with her after a thunderstorm.
We first meet Ruby when she parks by a lake during a downpour. The next morning, she hears a voice asking to be let into the VW Westfalia camper that is Ruby’s home. She opens the door to an adorable spaniel with long silky ears, a dog with whom Ruby can, shockingly, communicate. She understands what the dog is saying, and the dog understands her. It’s not cheesy, with actual dialogue being attributed to Hitchhiker, as Ruby names her new friend, but more like the dog is sending images and feelings that Ruby can understand. Ruby finds out that this new ability extends to other dogs, cats, and even horses and donkeys.
Ruby has a psychic gift, one she has had for many decades, and she travels the country hooking up with different fairs and carnival troupes doing psychic readings, tarot cards, reading palms, and also now, communicating with animals. But unlike Ruby’s paripatetic past, she seems destined to remain in Harmony Farms for a long time. Usually, after a few weeks at most, Ruby is on the road to a new location. Her daughter is married with two children, and Ruby keeps in contact with Sabine, but Ruby is a free spirit, always on the move. But there’s something about this new town, Harmony Farms, that seems to be conspiring with the fates to keep Ruby settled there, a fact which gives Hitch much joy.
Ruby has also begun to dream of her mother, a woman she never knew. She feels a hole because of her lack of knowledge about her family, and she contacts the orphanage where she was raised to see if there is any information there that might help in her quest. At the same time, Ruby and Hitch are making friends in Harmony Farms, and Ruby is even making a life for herself in this small town.
This novel harkens back to Wilson’s earlier books in that the main character is one with whom we can empathize, and we also like her and can relate to her. The writing is straightforward, and Wilson deftly alternates between the present third person narrative from Ruby’s point of view, Ruby’s past, and short, first person narratives from the dog, Hitchhiker’s, point of view. We are quickly charmed by Ruby’s situation and her determination to keep her new companion in spite of any obstacles she might face.
I wondered why Wilson chose to make the dog a purebred, almost champion, Cavalier King Charles spaniel. But it all comes together when Ruby sees Hitchhiker’s pedigree, going back many, many generations, and compares that to her own—not knowing even who her mother is. Does a failure to know our origins make us somehow inferior? We have people who brag about ancestors who came over on the Mayflower, as if having these people in their background makes them superior to others whose ancestors might have arrived later, or Native Americans, who obviously were here first. Ruby feels the lack not as a matter of pedigree, but more as a matter simply of not knowing her story. Why was she abandoned? Did her mother have the same gift Ruby does? Ruby’s daughter, Sabine, has the gift and it appears that Ruby’s granddaughter also has it. Has it been passed down for generations? Ruby would love answers, but the only way to get them is to find her mother.
This feel-good book is about friends, family, and planting roots. It’s about confronting your past, forgiveness, giving love a chance, and healing. It’s also about reading the signals that we all send out—animals and humans alike. And in some ways, we do have similar needs to dogs and donkeys: for companionship, intellectual stimulation, friendship, love, and respect. Whether your dog is a mix of unidentifiable breeds or has a pedigree a mile long, you will enjoy this novel. And if you aren’t currently lucky enough to have an animal companion of your own, after reading this story, you might just contact your local rescue to see what love might be waiting for you!
Please note: this review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.