A middle-grade reader about a little brown dog who goes from homeless stray to hero.
Chief’s story begins with the Great Depression. His family loves but can’t afford him. Like many Depression-era pets, Chief becomes homeless, left in a field to fend for himself. The dog enters Fire Station 203, the firefighters welcome him, and Chief finds his life filled with renewed purpose as he accompanies the men on their rescue missions. The loyal canine is always the first one into the burning building, and his “insistent bark” warns the firefighters that people are trapped inside. Ten years after he was abandoned, he embarks on his last mission; he helps rescue a grandmother and a litter of kittens. Unfortunately, Chief is hit by a car. The dog finds himself in heaven, looking down on his firefighter friends before being greeted by his mother, his friends and even the Archangel Michael. While Kavanagh’s fiction debut is well-written and deftly tackles the topic of grief, the links among the themes of the Great Depression, Chief’s struggles, and Christian suffering and reward could have been better forged. The tale centers on the imagined life of a dog, but it often philosophizes on the effects of the Great Depression and concludes with heavy Christian imagery. The resulting sum is less than its parts. Heavier action and a consistent Christian theme, rather than primarily including it at the end, would have formed a more cohesive, enjoyable read. When Kavanagh does describe Chief’s experiences, the narrative leaps to life. On Chief’s last mission, for example, the fire is described as “muffled crackling noises growing in intensity,” and soon the burning building collapses with “the sound of an approaching freight train.” These lively moments stand out in an account mostly of quiet exposition and infodumping about the Great Depression.
This noble story of a Depression-era dog requires restructuring and tightening to shine.