Harvey Comes Home
Harvey Comes Home
I was thinking about my conversation with Mr. Santos as I dusted the glass covering on Mr. Pickering’s collage. Even he had a wedding picture. It was in black and white like his other photos and in it he was wearing a uniform, like from the army or something. He was smiling and actually looked happy. In another photo, he was sitting in the cockpit of a two-person plane, and a different one showed him receiving a medal. But most of the pictures were taken on a farm. And the same dog was in almost every photo. The dog was big and fluffy, with patches of white and brown and a nose like a collie. I did double take – in one of the pictures, the dog had only three legs. Usually I didn’t dawdle in front of Mr. Pickering’s suite, but I had never noticed the three-legged dog before. I was so distracted by the photos; I didn’t see the door open or Mr. Pickering glowering at me. I looked away, suddenly nervous.
“What are you snooping around for?”
“I’m cleaning,” I said. I held up the rag as proof.
Mr. Pickering snorted. “Well, don’t let me stop you.”
Why are you so grumpy? I wanted to ask him. But then I looked at the collage again and remembered that he was ninety-six. I imagined how many people he’d lost. His wife. His friends. It was really sad when I thought about it.
Assuming that Harvey Comes Home is a simple novel about a lost dog does not give this story enough credit. Assuming that it is a novel about a family that searches for their missing dog isn’t enough either because the author has given equal weight to Harvey’s journey and to a second story, one that is a touch more emotionally captivating, with Harvey becoming a visitor in a nursing home and an important friend to the people who live and work there.
When the novel begins, the story is told, so winningly, from the perspective of Harvey, a West Highland Terrier, and he is using all of his senses and limited knowledge of the world around him to suss out that something unusual is happening in his life. Readers learn that Harvey’s family is going on a vacation and the person he loves the most, Maggie, will miss him very much. She reassures him that “Olivia will take care of you” as she takes him on a walk, but Harvey doesn’t quite understand what she is trying to tell him. Due to a loose gate latch, Harvey finds himself outside of the yard, in pursuit of a squirrel, and too far away to find his way home. After a few lonely days, Harvey is found by Austin, a boy who knows that he should turn Harvey in to the local animal shelter, but he just can’t make himself do it. He finds himself regularly taking the darling terrier with him to his after-school volunteer job at the nursing home where his own grandfather works as a custodian.
As the story switches to the nursing home, it changes easily to Austin’s point of view, and readers learn that Austin has the nursing home volunteer position because he and some friends set off firecrackers in the boys’ washroom at school. Austin knows that he was lucky to have a chance to work off his punishment at the home and ensure that he doesn’t cause any more trouble for his mother. He helps his grandfather by cleaning windows, dusting, washing floors, and doing any small maintenance tasks, and he is a popular source of entertainment for all of the residents. Although Austin doesn’t find conversation easy at first, he chats with the friendly people, nods politely at those who are not and knows to avoid people who indicate that they do not want to be bothered.
Austin also knows that his grandfather would him to make a connection with one of the less friendly men at the nursing home, and so he and Harvey make a few attempts at visiting the gruff Mr. Pickering who also takes a shine to the little white dog. Seeing Harvey brings out stories of his own farm life during the Depression. He shares stories of his brothers, their family life, his own dog named General, and his best friend Bertie. Mr. Pickering is still unfriendly to Austin after the visits, but Austin can tell that the man enjoys telling him the stories just as much as he likes hearing them. Mr. Pickering revels in telling about the scarier parts of his family life, like dust storms and the time that bandits came to their farm carrying rifles, but he also talks about tender moments, like how his mother cared for Bertie when her own parents left her behind. When he found Bertie alone in her family’s cabin, Mr. Pickering’s family shared the little bit of food that they had with her. It seems as if he has been waiting for just the right moment to let these stories shine, and Harvey was the catalyst.
In the meantime, Maggie’s family has returned from their vacation, and her grief over losing her little dog is visceral. Her parents try many different avenues to find Harvey, and it is very difficult to feel empathy with Austin’s decision to keep a dog he knows could easily be returned to a home that must miss him. They are doing great work at the nursing home in making Mr. Pickering come out of his shell, and he loves the little dog, but Maggie is suffering so much in her side of the story. The chapters told from her perspective are heartbreaking, and she adds a line to her father’s posters which say “$1,000 for Safe Return”, even though she is slightly short of this amount, because she is willing to spend all of her savings to get Harvey back.
During the moments with Austin and Harvey sitting quietly in Mr. Pickering’s nursing home room, it feels as if the reader must sit still and listen too. Mr. Pickering’s stories about fishing, playing with his brothers and his friend Bertie play like a movie as they are written on the page. It reads like visiting a grandparent. The nursing home is populated by other colourful people, like a woman who loves to bake for Austin and an eccentric crossword puzzle fan who shouts out clues to Austin as soon as he comes in for his shift. Austin is also warmly welcomed by the staff at the home as he works through his chores every afternoon.
The author has deliberately shown every element of the end of life in this story through the eyes of a grade school nursing home volunteer. Austin is given careful guidance through his grandfather about how to treat the elderly, and he benefits from his friendship and visits with Mr. Pickering, but Austin is aware that the people he sees there could become residents of the upper floors of the home where people move when their memories fail. He knows that residents at the nursing home are aging and may die. As Mr. Pickering’s health becomes worse, Austin knows that this is a possibility for him. Mr. Pickering is able to share some difficult and wonderful moments from his life before his health begins to falter. Both Austin and Harvey sense that Mr. Pickering is becoming frailer at the same time that Maggie’s search for Harvey starts to gain momentum, and the pace of the book begins to heat up with quick chapters that flip among the three perspectives.
The tables are turned as Austin is heartbroken to know that he will be without a sweet little dog. When Austin tells Maggie that she is welcome to come visit him at the nursing home, she generously replies “Maybe”. Harvey does go home with Maggie but with the knowledge of something more, of a different kind of home. Harvey Comes Home is a gentle story about a slow build to friendship between generations that would be of interest to all readers and a wonderful choice for reading aloud. Harvey Comes Home is about so much more than a lost dog, and I can see this book being one that any reader would treasure.