Journalist/novelist Sherrill (The Ruins of California, 2006, etc.) chronicles a man’s quest to save a nearly extinct native Japanese dog.
One of the earliest known species, Akita hunting dogs have long been revered in Japan as cornerstones of national culture, symbols of loyalty and pride. In the years following World War I, when Morie Sawataishi was growing up in the remote snow country, Akitas were plentiful. By the final years of World War II, as the navy veteran returned to the snow country with his young wife, Kitako, he found the breed nearly gone; Akitas had been trapped and killed for fur to line the officers’ uniforms. Morie was in the tiny village of Hachimantai to supervise the construction of hydroelectric plants for Mitsubishi. Life there was rustic and isolated. Kitako worked most of the day just keeping the fire stoked and the rice cooking; she longed for her family in Tokyo. Far from a doctor, the couple lost two of their six children to illness. But from the moment he acquired his first Akita in 1944, Morie’s primary attention was devoted to his dogs. Over the years, he raised hundreds of Akitas, lavishing them with rare affection and tender care. Among the most notable were Three Good Lucks, who won countless dog shows, and Homan, who fathered generations of puppies. Morie’s breeding, along with that of fellow enthusiasts, bolstered the population and made them popular again. Along with the dogs came a series of colorful characters, including a nomadic hunter who bonded with the couple and an Akita-obsessed X-ray technician who became Morie’s favorite trainer. As the century progressed, the snow country became more civilized, getting a hospital, electricity and high-speed trains, much to Kitako’s delight. But having spent a lifetime with Morie and the dogs, she had also begun to appreciate the value of the land and of the animals her husband helped to protect. Sherrill presents an interesting slice of life, but her writing is simplistic and her plotting lacks focus.
Ardent dog lovers will be inspired by Morie’s dedication, but neither the story nor the prose is compelling enough to reach beyond this specific audience.