Another month, another read-aloud middle grades novel about nature, pets, and a boy coming of age. After the last few classics with their super sad endings, my son and I were both hoping for Shiloh, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, to be more light-hearted. I wouldn’t call it light-hearted, but I would say you don’t have to be scared of the ending. No one shoots their dog in this one. Phew!
Shiloh is not quite a classic, though it appears on many reading lists and recommended readings. It’s about a tween boy growing up poor in the mountains of West Virginia. It felt old-timey to my son, but part of this is from the lack of bells and whistles in your life if you are rural and poor, so there were lessons to be learned by reading this. The story really takes place sometime in the eighties, maybe nineties. The boy, Marty, wants a dog, but his family can’t afford one. He’s a really soft-hearted kid, and when he finds a dog which he suspects of having been abused, he questions his own morals in order to save it.
I love that the parents are both kind and parental. I love that Marty breaks the rules, struggles with his moral compass, tries so hard to do right and grow up… I’m not real sure I like the way all of it plays out in the end (I think it might be a bit confusing as far as a moral goes), but the narrative does value things like sticking to your guns and questions things like judging others based on social relationships. All the characters, including Marty, have their strengths and their flaws.
The writing itself is clean, but not very descriptive and not anything to knock your socks off. In fact, my son was having a hard time envisioning what was happening at times, because there was just so little in the way of description. I love a great, dense scene-setting, but these scenes were mostly implied, using what you might already know about places like it coupled with just a few suggestions. In other words, things were “bridges” or “rivers” or “house with four rooms,” but that’s all. What was in the field? How big was the field? What did the sky look like?
My son enjoyed the story. We both wanted to know what was going to happen to Marty and Shiloh, and Judd Travers made a pretty good villain. It was a tense one.
I recommend it if you are interested in books like my son is, about nature, pets, and/or pre-teen boys. And growing up. It would be a good, short chapter book for someone in late elementary school or early junior high.
PS. If you find dog licking gross, this is NOT the book for you.