“What happened after you reported the trapped coyote pup?” Syd asked. She sat with Rika and Liz in a corner of the hall where she taught 4-H dog obedience classes. Liz’s black-and-white Border Collie, Trixie, lay patiently at their feet, her intense eyes fixed on her owner’s face. She thumped her tail whenever Liz spoke.
Syd, whose full name was Sydney Anne Godfrey, was born with a head of thick, wavy red hair, the same colour as that of Prince Edward Island’s fictional sweetheart, Anne of Green Gables. That hair had caused her some grief in her youth, so she rarely divulged her middle name. At the age of twenty-nine, Syd’s hair had become a rich auburn, and she wore it long, usually woven in a French braid that hung halfway down her back. Her freckles and cream complexion matched her hair perfectly. Syd was of average height, strongly built, and she nearly always wore a cheery smile. Warm brown eyes gave her a gentle look, very much in contrast to her aging uncle, Alistair Godfrey, the irascible veterinarian who Rika complained about. Syd, also trained as a veterinarian, had just returned to the Island to start working at her uncle Alistair’s clinic.
Syd knew that Rika was hoping to get her own Border Collie as soon as she had saved enough money to buy a good pup from working parents. She was sympathetic when Rika told her about the coyote attack. Then Liz described how they found the trapped coyote.
“So Rika’s dad phoned the trapper,” Liz continued.
“Blaine Dorian,” Rika added.
“He came right over, but Rika’s dad wouldn’t let us go back there with them. Anyway, I didn’t want to see the poor little thing again. It was awful,” Liz finished with a pained expression.
“He killed the innocent pup. He killed it!” Rika’s voice had risen and her face flushed.
Syd, her expression serious, leaned back in her chair and hooked her thumbs in the pockets of her faded black jeans. “I’m sure this hasn’t been easy for you.” She looked directly at Rika. “You don’t want to see any animals suffer, not your sheep or the coyotes, do you?”
“No way!” Rika agreed.
“Me neither!” Liz seconded.
“Rika, have you talked to your dad about using a guard animal? You know, like a guard dog, or a guard donkey?”
Liz giggled. “Guard donkey?”
“Well, my dad mentioned it, but he decided to call the trapper first. Maybe it costs too much.” Rika stared down at the ground, tugging at the loose curtain of hair that nearly hid her face. “I think a guard dog would be cool. Aren’t they those big white dogs with the weird names? Are there any on the Island?”
Syd smiled at Rika’s enthusiasm. “There are both guard donkeys and guard dogs on PEI. I can give you the names of a few people who use them, and a breeder if you’re interested.”
Rika’s face clouded again. “Do guard animals kill coyotes?”
Rika, who is almost fifteen, began taking care of her first two ewes when she was nine. Now, her flock has grown to over thirty, and she’s saving up to purchase a Border Collie. But, for the first time since her mother’s death when Rika was ten, some of Rika’s sheep have died. The electric fence isn’t enough to keep predators at bay, but maybe a guard dog – rather than a Collie – is what’s needed. Veterinarian Syd introduces Rika to a woman who breeds guard dogs and happens to have imported a mature, well-trained, stud dog, named Vasi, that she’d be happy to have live with Rika provided he’s made available for breeding. Although dubious about taking a guard dog rather than a Collie, Rika is quickly won over by Vasi. When the dog gets sick, Syd and Rika’s ‘Papa’ are in contact a lot more and begin to date, something which annoys Rika. Eventually Vasi recovers, to Rika’s great relief, and returns to the farm. The woman who owns Vasi offers Rika a free trial of a guard-dog pup. It ends up damaging a sheep and chasing a neighbour’s livestock, and so is sent back. Then Vasi is hit by a truck and must have a leg amputated. Rika feels responsible for both dogs’ problems. She is cheered by a surprise visit of relatives from Holland. At first Rika is enchanted by her worldly, 16-year-old cousin, Ella. However, their relationship sours after Ella gets Rika into an uncomfortable situation. Ella also assures Rika that her Papa intends to marry Syd, news Rika does not like. Just before the relatives return to Holland, Syd gives Rika the promise of a Border Collie puppy for her fifteenth birthday. That night Rika has a good dream about her dead mother. The next day she is happy when Papa tells her he’d like to ask for Syd’s hand in marriage.
It is clear that the author loves dogs. She does a wonderful job of describing their action and showing their emotions. But, this is supposed to be Rika’s story. Rika is a mercurial character, and it is difficult to keep up with her mood swings. Towards the end of the story, when Rika is hysterical about Vasi’s accident, Papa lets the reader know that, when Rika’s mother died, “she hardly reacted at all. She kept it all inside, I think. Of course, she was much younger then. Perhaps she should have seen a therapist, but she was handling it so well. … Now I worry, I am afraid she may do something drastic.” Happily, after a well-intentioned lecture from Papa, a good dream (possibly plus the promise of a puppy) is all it takes to straighten Rika out. Other than cousin Ella who is an enigma, Syd, Rika’s friends, Papa, and his family from Holland are all largely one-dimensional, but serve their plot purposes well.
Rika’s Shepherd is full of information about everything from what nursing ewes are fed, to the formula for neutralizing skunk odour, to the circumstances that resulted in one of Rika’s great uncles committing suicide just after World War II. While each bit of information may be of interest to some readers, collectively they slow the pace and add nothing in terms of plot or relevant character development, as per the following example, when Rika is considering buying a guard dog:
Mrs. Brewer ushered [Rika and Syd] into what she called her Turkish tearoom, inviting them to sit on the large, colourful cushions arranged around a low round table in the middle. The floor was covered by several beautiful carpets woven with intricate designs in blues, reds, and golds. Their host brought out a tray with a silver teapot, silver sugar bowl and spoons, and three small glasses laced with silver filigree. The tray was set on the table next to three plates with squares of syrup-drenched almond cake. Mrs. Brewer plunked herself onto one of the cushions next to them.
“This is how they drink their chai in the Turkish countryside,” she explained and poured hot tea into the three glasses, then spooned sugar into her own. “They usually use sugar cubes in Turkey. I had to drink a lot of chai before the shepherds would talk to me about their dogs. And there weren’t many toilet facilities in the rural villages where I travelled, so it was a real gut-buster, if you know what I mean.” She chortled and sipped her tea.
“Mrs. Brewer, did you bring these carpets back from Turkey?” Syd asked.
“Yes, I did. Aren’t they spectacular?” She looked around with a satisfied expression. “They tell me that the finest weaving is done by girls or women with small hands. Turkey is a fascinating country. The people are so generous and hospitable. The country folk don’t have much, but they share what they have. At the very least, they offer you chai. A lot of them make ayran, which is a little like buttermilk. Very nice, too, unless you’re lactose intolerant like I am, which is not a good scene, if you know what I mean. You gotta travel with your own toilet paper, too, let me tell ya!” She belted out another hearty laugh and encouraged her guests to eat their cake.
Numerous disconcerting point-of-view issues occur throughout the novel, such as the following example.
“Papa, may I be excused? I have to see what Vasi’s barking at,” she pleaded.
“I am sure he has everything under control, Rika,” Willem suggested. “You are almost finished eating…”
“Papa, I can’t eat another bite! Please!”
He sighed. “Very well, go.”
Rika lanched herself from the table and practically straight into her boots, not bothering with overalls. She was out the door and racing down the pasture faster than Willem, who watched from the doorway, had ever seen before.
Rika’s Shepherd would have benefitted significantly from extensive editing.
Karen Rankin is a Toronto, Ontario, teacher and writer of children’s stories.