Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve
The unusual title, Good Dogs Don’t Make it to the South Pole, might be considered a statement of the shortcoming of being a good dog. Reading this book, one realises that, in fact, a good dog is most fortunate in not attempting a polar expedition, especially if it shared the fate of the majority of Amundsen’s more than two hundred huskies.
Hans Olav Thyvold obviously loves dogs. Tassen, “the small one”, lives with an old couple in a suburb of a Norwegian city. Early in the book, his master, the Major, dies, and Tassen and his mistress, Mrs. Thorkildsen, make a new life together.
Tassen has lived a charmed life with his owners. He has all the most enjoyable aspects of a happy dog’s life. Two walks every day, food he devours with gusto (gravy in particular) and he spends the rest of his day indoors in their company. While still feeling content and cared for, changes occur for Tassen after the Major’s death.
Overcome by loneliness and grief, Mrs Thorkildsen takes to drinking heavily what the dog refers to as dragon water. Walks in the woods no longer happen and are replaced by trips to the Tavern to maintain a steady supply of spirits which she transports in her wheeled shopping basket. Tassen’s diet is now often reduced to cinnamon rolls as the widow neglects her own basic nutritional needs.
Their story unfolds in sometimes surprising ways. Mrs Thorkildsen loves reading and still regularly visits the library. There she borrows a book on the great Norwegian polar expedition. Tassen is as interested as she in the logistics and challenges of Amundsen’s exploits especially the plight of his over two hundred Greenland dogs, which he transported by ship from the Arctic to the Antarctic. Unlike the Englishman, Scott, he used them to haul the sleds across the ice. Having endured the life-threatening conditions in their journey to the South Pole, the dogs then were slaughtered as food for the men and remaining dogs.
Thyvold has written previously of both Amundsen and Nansen – feted polar explorers in Norway. The book incorporates fascinating facts about this journey by Amundsen to the South Pole, but not in a boring conventional manner.
He uses a conversational ploy between the dog and his mistress to highlight some of the drama of the monumental task that faced explorers in the early 20th century who bravely left the civilised world without the cushion of modern technology.
One highly amusing section denigrates penguins in no uncertain terms. He despises these creatures who in the long dark days and nights indulge in wild sexual perversions of every kind.
The dog urges the reader to throw their cute penguin ornaments into the bin where they rightly belong! He maintains they live on their own because “no other continent will have them”!!
This unusually intelligent beast suggests dogs take over as librarians. They have a highly sensitive sense of smell and could reliably match the ideal book which is identified by the super smelling nose, to the reader in search of a suitable book.
As Mrs Thorkildsen deteriorates, her son and daughter-in-law arrange for a Home Help. Various people come twice a week, and Tassen learns to enjoy their visits. These come to an abrupt end when one young man retires to the garden shed to smoke weed.
There are other events peppering this account of why good dogs don’t make it to the South Pole. Some are very funny and it’s the dog’s view and subsequent interpretation of human beings around him that make it an engaging read.
At times I found it difficult to accept that this intelligent and articulate animal was restricted to conventional doglike behaviour. He is capable of philosophical thinking but is an ordinary canine with food and walks top priorities. He appreciated the librarian visiting for a meal and chatting about ageing, children, parenting. Almost human, he is complex and unpredictable.
Tassen sums it up with:
“for dogs, ignorance is bliss
the human privilege is knowledge”
I enjoyed this book more than I expected initially. For a reader who loves dogs, it is a must read. It is funny, touching and, at times, perceptive.
Knowing that the cleverest dog, scientifically tested and recorded, a Border Collie, recognised a total of over 1,200 words, Tassen the book’s hero, is indeed exceptional.
Read it for pure enjoyment – not as a celebration of a dog’s outstanding language acquisition!
GOOD DOGS DON’T MAKE IT TO THE SOUTH POLE.
HANS -OLAV THYVOLD.
Allen & Unwin.
ISBN 978 1 76087 546 6
292 pages. $29.99