After his fear of loud noises causes him to fail his service dog training, Chester, a supersmart chocolate Lab, becomes a support dog to Gus, a white 10-year-old boy with nonverbal autism.
Chester’s relationship with his trainer, who’s unprofessionally obsessed with teaching him to read, forecasts the book’s central heartache: “I loved her so much, but I don’t think that’s enough for people to understand what you’re trying to say.” While narrating his own canine views on family and loneliness, Chester also interprets Gus’ often misunderstood behaviors. McGovern frequently parallels boy and dog as both struggle to be understood by those they love, and communication becomes paramount when Chester senses a frightening change in Gus and Gus falls victim to a bully. Gus’ gradual, subtle interactions with his classmates ring true and sympathetic. However, Chester and Gus also “think-talk” to each other (and possibly to a motherly Jamaican woman) via telepathy, a device that cheapens their bond as much as it forges it. Though telepathy provides convenient access to Gus’ thoughts, interests, and feelings, it also perpetuates tired extrasensory tropes and implies that empathizing with autistic people requires a quasi-magical gift. The ostensibly happy resolution to a plot contrivance requires Gus’ misfortune, creating more dissonance than satisfaction.
A bittersweet, vexing glimpse of a less-portrayed point on the autism spectrum. (Fiction. 9-13)