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“Life has a strange way of leading you to where you need to be,” writes Tom Ryan in Will’s Red Coat. The aphorism is arguably as applicable to animals as it is to humans, as is clear in this powerful follow-up to Ryan’s 2011 bestseller Following Atticus. While that book centered on Ryan’s relationship with his canine friend Atticus, the emphasis here is primarily on Will, a deaf and mostly blind senior dog whom Ryan adopts. Will has other health challenges, and he’s not expected to live more than a few months when the author and animal activist brings him from a New Jersey kill shelter to his home in bucolic New Hampshire. He simply wants to give Will a peaceful place to die with dignity.
But then something surprising happens: Will flourishes. What follows is a beautifully written memoir of acceptance, trust, compassion, and friendship that manages to avoid the clichés that afflict other books regarding the human-animal bond. One of the things I most appreciate about Tom Ryan is that he never condescends to Will and the other dogs in his life. He treats them as his peers—not “fur babies,” but individuals who deserve the same considerations that humans do. He doesn’t shout commands at Will and Atticus, for instance, but asks nicely, as when he cautions one of them to be wary of wildlife: “Be careful, my friend.” Some readers may find it remarkable how animals respond to being accorded such courtesy.
Fans of Ryan’s first book will be happy to know that Atticus figures into this narrative, too. But this is really Will’s story. He arrives with baggage Tom and Atticus never anticipated—including some very aggressive rage issues of the bared-teeth-and-snapping-jaws variety—disturbing the tranquility of their home and challenging Ryan’s patience. Yet through it all, he treats Will with tenderness, recognizing that this elderly dog with severely limited senses had been abandoned by aging guardians who could no longer care for him and suddenly found himself navigating a strange new world. Will’s trust in others would come slowly, if ever, and would be hard-earned. I was constantly impressed by Ryan’s perseverance and wondered how tolerant I would be under similar circumstances; indeed, this book has inspired me to be more understanding of others—or at least try to be.
Ryan introduces us to some of the humans who have influenced him as well, most notably his Aunt Marijane, a former nun who ran a special education school and later did hospice work. Marijane shows her nephew a way of life that is non-judgmental and reminds him that “Dogs and coyotes and owls and bears and people are all the same inside. … We fear and love and get angry and are happy. We all have compassion and empathy.” The two share an abiding kinship with nature and an easy rapport.
The arc also follows Ryan’s evolution from an everyday “animal lover” to his discovery of how animals are treated in factory farms, zoos, circuses, and other enterprises that profit from exploitation. In considering his own treatment of animals, he eventually embraces veganism, thanks in no small part to knowing people who thrive on a plant-based diet and to having access to a wealth of vegan cookbooks. “I love animals,” he writes, “and yet I had done my best to ignore where the hamburger on my plate came from, the suffering of chickens that led to buffalo wings, or how many lives had to be sacrificed to fulfill my desire for barbecued ribs.”
A keen observer of the human condition, Ryan narrates the story with the voice of a philosopher-poet, bringing to mind many of the writers (Emerson, Thoreau, Muir, et al.) he mentions throughout. He has an extraordinary outlook on life (and death), and if he doesn’t manage to change your view of the world, however slightly, he’s at the very least certain to give you a lot of food for thought.
The writing here is even better than in Following Atticus—the prose is lyrical (without being sappy) and more assured. You by no means need to have read Following Atticus before reading Will’s Red Coat, but you will doubtless get added pleasure by having done so.
For me, the sign of a good book is not just how it makes me feel, but if I would read it again; I plan to return to this one many times over, revisiting the spirit of compassion and hope that fills its pages. Will’s Red Coat is very highly recommended indeed.
Note: You’ll be able to buy Will’s Red Coat on April 25 (though you can pre-order it now from your favorite bookstore). In the meantime, you can check out Tom Ryan’s blog here and visit his Facebook page.
My thanks to HarperCollins for sending me an advance reader’s copy.