“I look at the dark closing in, sky getting more and more purple, and I’m thinking how nothing is as simply as you guess – not right or wrong, not Judd Travers, not even me or this dog I got here. But the good part is I saved Shiloh and opened my eyes some. Now that ain’t bad for eleven” (Naylor, 1991, p. 144).
This was such an incredibly sweet little story! Like Holes, Shiloh is a story I had heard of, but had never bothered to read as a child. Looking back on it, I’m curious as to why I never came across this book, as I’ve always loved animals and feel-good stories about stopping animal cruelty (one of my favorite childhood books is Hoot by Carl Hiaasen). This book would’ve been right up my alley when I was younger. Whatever the reason, I’m glad that I chose to read it now, as Shiloh is a heart-warming story about a boy and his love for a dog.
The story focuses on eleven-year-old Marty Preston, a young boy with a big heart. While walking in the woods one day, he comes across what appears to be a timid and maltreated beagle. Instantly smitten, Marty lets the dog follow him home, where his parents insist that the dog must belong to someone nearby. It doesn’t take long for the family to speculate that the dog belongs to their neighbor Judd Travers, a thirty year old hunter known for mistreating his hunting dogs. Sure enough, the dog turns out to be Judd’s newest hunting dog, who he has beaten and starved for constantly running away from hunts. Angered and worried about his new-found friend, Marty decides to hide the dog away on his family’s property when he escapes once again. What follows is a story about love, friendship, honesty, and how doing the right thing isn’t always as simple as one might think.
What struck me most about Shiloh is that, despite its simplicity, it is able to convey a very important message in only 144 pages. The overall message to this story (at least from what I gathered) is that its not always easy to decide what the right course of action is, even if we truly believe we’re doing the right thing. From the very beginning, Marty struggles to decide which is worse: knowingly allowing a dog to be mistreated, or lying to the dog’s legal owner while hiding him in the woods. While most children learn fairly early on that stealing is wrong, they also learn that it’s important to treat animals with respect and kindness. Frequently, it seems as if simple truths such as these can become muddied, making it hard to tell the difference between wrong and right. While most would argue that Marty’s heart is in the right place, his actions lead him to weave a tangled web of lies for those around him, as one lie leads right into the next. Throughout the book, Marty is constantly reassuring himself that what he is doing is okay because he’s doing it to save an innocent animal, a conclusion that many of us would come to if we’d been put in the same position.
As this book proves, however, the answers are not always black and white. Judd Travers may not be the nicest human on earth, but we learn throughout the story that he was neglected and abused himself as a child, partially causing him to lash out at animals and other people as he grew older. In the end, though Judd toys with the idea of going back on the bargain he’s struck with Marty, he allows the boy to keep the dog he’s worked so hard for, showing that even the nastiest humans can have some redeeming qualities. What I took most out of this story, though, was how the love between a person and his or her pet can really shape his or her identity. I was always told, growing up, that getting a pet was a huge responsibility, and that taking care of an animal was a big commitment. Marty demonstrates this by going hungry on many occasions in order to bring leftover food to Shiloh, as well as working twenty hours doing hard labor for Judd in order to keep him. This book, without preaching to children, demonstrates that even without these sacrifices, taking care of an animal is no small task.
I believe this book has the potential to teach children how to be compassionate towards animals, and to recognize that some rules are meant to be broken if it’s being done for the right reasons. In the end, Marty’s sacrifices lead to a happy ending for both him and his dog, but the book warns that his decisions might have consequences for others (such as when he agrees to keep Judd’s illegal hunting a secret in order to keep Shiloh). This book is a short, easy read with a wonderful message, and I would highly recommend it to children who are animal lovers or reluctant readers; the plot and language are simple and easy to follow along, and the story can be used to prompt a discussion about compassion for animals and the difference between right and wrong (which is not always as clear as we would like it to be). This book is proof that not every Newbery Award winner has to be profound; sometimes the best stories are the most simple and easy to understand.
Naylor, P. R. (1991). Shiloh. New York, NY: Atheneum.