________________ CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 5. . . .October 2, 2009.


Junkyard Dog. (Orca Currents).

Monique Polak
Victoria, BC: Orca Books, 2009.
107 pp., pbk. & hc., $9.95 (pbk.), $16.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-55469-155-5 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-55469-156-2 (hc.).

Grades 6-9 / Ages 11-14.

Review by Tara Williston.


Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.




“That dog’s too old to be any use to anyone. They’ll euthanize him at the SPCA,” Floyd says. “So we’re gonna give him a chance to make it on his own.”

“Here?” I say. We’re at the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. Floyd can’t be serious. What is Smokey going to do out here?

“I thought I already talked to you about asking questions. You let the dog out. This is as good a place as any. And make it quick, will ya?”

I hear what Floyd is saying, but it’s not making any sense. He taps the steering wheel. “C’mon,” he says, “let the dog out. Now!”

Letting Killer out of his cage that first time was nothing compared to this. My fingers tremble as I fumble with the latch. I’ll never forget the look in Smokey’s eyes. They say I trust you.

If I do this, I’m no better than the people who abandon their pets on moving day. Do those dogs give their owners the same trusting look that Smokey is giving me?

 In Monique Polak’s Junkyard Dog, her third book published in the “Orca Currents” series, Justin is a 13-year-old kid living with his bitter and volatile father in a cramped Montreal apartment. Mom’s long gone, and Dad is entirely uninterested in anything to do with mainstream society, including work, which leaves his young teen son to worry about such mundane details as paying rent and what they’re going to eat for dinner. As a result, Justin shows many signs of the constant stress under which he lives: “Loud noises spook me,” he narrates, explaining why he jumps when something clatters to the floor suddenly at the corner store. Even more extreme is his alarming hair loss: “[The bald spots] have gotten worse lately. At first, there was just thinning, but now there are a few spots the size of quarters where there’s no hair at all……I try not to think about it, but it’s hard.”

     When Justin stumbles into an after-school job working with dogs, animals he loves, he is understandably thrilled. This means money for food –– “I may get to eat something besides mac and cheese this week” –– and maybe even some extra to put towards rent, plus, spending time with dogs. They are guard dogs, granted, and maybe just a wee bit scary, but Justin clearly has a way with animals; the dogs are noticeably calmer in his presence. Justin’s excitement quickly turns sour, though, as he learns more about both his employers and the nature of their business. Floyd is the boss, Vince is his obedient right-hand man, and Justin is just there to feed, water, and scoop poop, and not to ask questions, as Floyd pointedly reminds him whenever he forgets himself. And definitely not to raise an eyebrow at Floyd’s questionable animal care practices, which do include a deal with an Animal Control employee who hands over “lost” pets for a cut of Floyd’s profit, and a cruel procedure known as “debarking,” but do not include costly visits to the vet.

     Increasingly uncomfortable with the shady goings-on at work, Justin also feels increasingly guilty about taking part in activities that hurt animals, no matter how badly he needs the money. Finally the day comes when Justin draws the line: old grey-muzzled Smokey, the dog Justin has grown most fond of, is now too stiff and slow to be much use as a guard dog any longer. Smokey is loaded into the van with the other guard dogs on their way to work, but Smokey isn’t going to a new work location. Instead, Floyd drives past the city’s outskirts and then orders Justin to lead Smokey out to the highway shoulder and leave him there. Justin balks, but under pressure from his menacing boss, he eventually does as he’s told. However, back at home that night, Justin can’t live with himself. After a startling conversation with his elderly neighbour, Justin resolves to fix his mistake and goes out hunting for Smokey.

     With the help of Amanda, a classmate (and secret crush) whom Justin runs into on his way to rescue Smokey, Justin does indeed manage to fix his mistake. Not only does he find Smokey, but he also soon finds a good home for him (Amanda to the rescue again), quits the unethical guard dog racket despite Floyd’s attempt to blackmail him into continuing and neatly takes down the nasty crook when Smokey, Amanda and the police join forces with him. From there, Justin’s winning streak just keeps on going: he comes home to the very unexpected news of Dad announcing he’s going to start working again and a sudden uncharacteristic show of fatherly concern when Dad comes out with, “You know, this gives me a bad feeling about the guard dog business. I appreciate the money you’re bringing in, but I was thinking……maybe it’s time you quit. Concentrate on school instead.” In the next and final chapter, Justin and Dad are having a convivial dinner with Amanda and her parents at their home. The book ends with Justin’s joining Amanda and her parents in an after-dinner family board game. Thinks Justin, who has cautioned the others about his lack of experience with games, “This reminds me of Smokey and his tug toy. He had to learn how to play. Maybe I can learn too.”

     And so all loose ends are very neatly tied up –– a little too neatly, in fact, which is my major reservation with Junkyard Dog. Although the story is an interesting one, with enough action and engaging characters to easily hook reluctant readers, the final third of the book does a lot to erode the somewhat shaky verisimilitude established earlier on. It seems rather miraculous that Justin and Amanda find Smokey mere minutes after arriving at the general area where Justin thinks he left Smokey over an hour before –– he can’t remember the exact spot –– in the dark, in a heavily treed stretch beside the highway. The author then entirely skips over the difficult piece of how the two teens then get the dog back to the city. One minute they are reunited with Smokey, and in the next scene Justin is already settled into a routine where he keeps the dog hidden in the furnace room of his apartment building, sneaking him our for nighttime walks, with help and dog food courtesy of the faithful Amanda. Then come the two action-packed ending chapters in which the other surprising events described above all take place inside of 20 short pages. Talk about a dénouement……

     My other misgiving about this book is its tendency toward the sentimental. Justin’s life is a bit of a sob-story –– something that seems to be a recurring theme in the “Orca Currents” and “Orca Soundings” series –– and phrases such as “Maybe I can learn [to play] too,” “I feel like Smokey needs me. Like I understand him in a way no one else does,” and “I feel as if somehow, if I’m strong enough, I can take away King’s pain”……well, cue the violins already! I believe that young readers, reluctant or not, can quickly sniff out these kinds of cloying, unrealistic elements. And while they may not recognize clichés in the same way that adult readers do –– simply due to lack of reading experience –– I believe that kids nevertheless deserve good literature that respects their intelligence and enriches both their hearts and minds. While I certainly give Monique Polak plenty of points for telling a heart-enriching and very human story, I hesitate when it comes to the mind-enriching part. This book has many good points; I only wish Polak had resisted a little better the urge to not-so-subtly yank on readers’ heartstrings and had devoted more attention to the business of writing.

     At minimum, Junkyard Dog can provide some excellent food for thought regarding ethical questions of treatment of animals and whether an individual’s need can excuse participation in unethical activities. At best, it just might get a dog-loving non-reader to happily crack open a book. And that is unarguably a good thing.

Recommended with reservations.

Tara Williston, a Children’s Librarian with the Burnaby Public Library system, lives in Vancouver, BC.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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