Rose is a border collie/shepherd mix who has resided for the past six years with Sam on his large farm. Sam raises sheep, cattle, goats, and even has an old donkey, Carol, who is living out her days there. Rose is a working dog, at Sam’s side at all times, helping him heard the livestock and keep the farm operating. Rose has no interest in being pampered. On the contrary, Sam rarely even touches her. She recoils if he forgets and tries to pet her. Rose’s favorite word is “work” and she keeps order utilizing a map in her head, “a picture of how things ought to be.” If something is out of order, Rose alerts Sam and, together, they take action.
As the story opens, it is a bitterly cold January. Sam’s beloved wife, Katie, died two months earlier, but Rose is still searching for her daily. Katie’s clothing, scent, and essence remain both in the house and in the woods where she and Rose walked each day, stopping to rest and talk on a large old tree stump. But Rose cannot understand why Katie seems to have left the farm and has never returned. She senses Sam’s palpable sadness, though. What she cannot possibly comprehend is that Sam is thinking of selling the land that has been in his family for 200 years. Without Katie at his side, he can no longer muster the energy or enthusiasm to continue the transformation of the farm into a more moder operation producing organic products. And Katie’s renovation of the home’s interior stands unfinished.
A storm is coming, so Rose must help Sam ready the farm, putting enough hay out for the animals, making sure all fences, gates, and doors are secure, and ensuring that the animals have ample water.
By the time it is over, the storm will have lasted five long days, exposing the region to subzero temperatures, and raging seventy-five mile-per-hour winds, and require a National Guard rescue operation. At least three area residents will be killed, and two more reported missing. Barns will collapse from the weight of the snow, trees and power lines will be blown down, and animals will later be discovered dead, frozen in the spots where they stood in the pastures. Coyotes and wolves will be driven from their normal hiding places, desperate to find food and water.
Will Sam survive? Will Rose?
The book is dedicated to the real Rose, who resides with author and photographer Jon Katz at Bedlam Farm. About Rose he writes: “Rose is the border collie who graces the cover of The Dogs of Bedlam Farm. Her ferocious work ethic, courage, gift for problem solving, and firm ideas how things ought to be run are what makes it possible to live here. I marvel at this focused sprite, not even 40 pounds, who terrorizes rams, herds sheep, stares down donkeys, rescues geese, corrals goats and runaway cows. She helps farmers all over the county. We charge $10 per visit, and she has earned $340 which I keep in a Rose basket.”
In order to craft the unique story of Rose’s determination not to let her beloved farm or any of its inhabitants fall prey to the massive storm, Katz consulted with animal behavior scientists and studied his own Rose in order to not only understand, to the extent possible, the thought processes of dogs, but also develop a believable voice for Rose. Most of the story is told from Rose’s perspective, which renders it an unusual, but fascinating, work of fiction. Katz says, “We often hear people describe what their dogs are thinking, but few people really understand the mind of a dog, and it was very exciting, very challenging to try and capture that. I think I did, and nothing in the book goes beyond what a dog might actually do. The fictional Rose is a real dog, not a Disney dog or an emotionalized one.”
Indeed, Rose is highly intelligent, able to perceive facts, analyze situations, engage in problem-solving, and create results. However, she has her limitations. For instance, although she understands vocal tone and inflection, she actually only comprehends a few precise words, the most notable being “work.” She clearly understands when Sam signals her it is time to work and it is work that gives her purpose. She sleeps only sporadically, often getting up during the night to slip out the hinged doggy door to head to the barn and check on the animals. In fact, her keen ability to hear and discern normal from decidedly unusual sounds is a trait upon which Sam relies heavily. The book opens with Rose noting that a ewe is making noises during labor that signal she is in distress, so Rose awakens Sam. Together, they discover that the ewe is having trouble delivering the lamb and, with Rose’s assistance, Sam manages to save both mother and baby.
The book is an engrossing, suspenseful roller coaster ride that is impossible to put down. Once the storm arrives, Katz, himself a farmer, paints a realistic portrait of both the storm’s power and the limited response to it that Sam and Rose can mount. Anyone who has ever experienced a blizzard will empathize with the moments when Sam realizes neither his cell nor home phones are operational, as well as the point at which the lights flicker a few times before the back-up generator kicks into action. Katz’s descriptions of the countryside, the farm itself, and the storm bring the story to life in a realistic, unsensational manner — the reader will hear the wind howling, the snow crunching under Sam’s boots, the coyotes howling from up on the hill, and the sheep bleating as Rose and Sam work quickly to corral them for their own safety.
The real beauty of Katz’s tale, however, flows from the symbiotic relationship between Rose and Sam. As any dog lover can attest, the bond between owner and dog can be a mystical, magical, and utterly inexplicable tie. Sam refers to Rose as his “farm manager” and insists to his friends, and even Katie, that Rose is like a farm hand, a partner working alongside him. He emphasizes that she is “just a dog,” but as the story opens, Sam admits that his relationship with Rose “has grown beyond anything Sam understood at first, or even imagined. . . . It was something he lived, not something he thought much about.”
By the time the reader reaches the last page, Sam has gained a deeper understanding of and appreciation for Rose, the faithful companion who would literally sacrifice her own life for that of Sam or one of the farm animals in her care. Katz weaves a beautiful story about perseverance, determination, and what it means to be completely, selflessly dedicated to that which means the most to us. With simple, straight-forward prose, he makes a profound statement about life and death, as well as how we live our lives in communion with the creatures we love. Reminding his readers that we are all, literally, slaves to the whims of nature, Katz subtly reinforces, especially through Sam’s attitude and actions, the need to respect our environment and understand our limitations when dealing with it.
Most importantly of all, Katz allows his readers a glimpse, for the first time, at the probable thoughts and emotions of one very special dog, Rose, who will remain in your heart long after you close the book.
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