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Cruelty and love are central to this childhood story
The $60,000 Dog: My Life with Animals by Lauren Slater
c.2012, Beacon Press
$24.95/$28.95 Canada
280 pages

Your life can be tracked by the photos of your pets. Snap: There’s your first cat, held tightly in your chubby toddler arms.
Snap: You with a neighbor’s dog, who always covered you with kisses.

Snap: You with your own pup on your 10th birthday.
Snap: Your first horse … your bird … your aquarium.
Author Lauren Slater has always loved animals, too, wild and otherwise. In her new book The $60,000 Dog, she remembers them.

For her ninth birthday, Lauren Slater got a new bicycle. It was the perfect present for a curious girl from the Golden Ghetto. Many of her neighbors were Holocaust survivors, and Slater longed to get away from the city because there were no trees there.
She started to ride further and further away from home until one day, she realized that she was in the country. There were cows there, as well as foxes, spiders and other wildlife. It was the perfect escape for a child who felt unloved by a mother struggling with mental illness.

Once she was a mother herself, Slater allowed her own daughter to take riding lessons. The proximity to the animals made Slater remember her weeks spent on a horse farm, despite her mother’s belief that “Jewish people do not ride horses.”

It’d been a magical summer with a real horsewoman in charge. Of 12 girls on the farm that year, Slater had the least amount of experience, but she learned a lot – cantering, jumping, falling – and that grown-ups can be unbelievably cruel.

By age 15, Slater had given up horses, perhaps because her family had given up on her. Through some stroke of luck, she was sent to a foster family that fostered something good in her, although she didn’t know it until she’d left their home.

But she grew up, went to college and got married to a man who, much to her consternation, wasn’t an animal lover. Undaunted, she got two dogs, which prompted him to figure out what the animals cost.

One of them, it turned out, was $60,000 – and priceless.
Oh, there’s so much to love about The $60,000 Dog. And there’s so much to hate.

With some of the richest prose you’ll ever see in a memoir, author Lauren Slater draws readers into a magical world of forest, a lonely attic room, a suburban home filled with frustrated anger and a lush pasture ripe with grassy scent. Slater subtly puts animals just off-center of her stories, yet they’re always there. We can feel them, too.

But this beauty is circled by some of the harshest, most painful words in print. A dog is drugged to death. A horse is whipped; pets are lost, denied or in pain. I cringed, but I couldn’t look away because Slater wouldn’t let me.

And that’s what you need to know about this book. It’s good, it’s bad and it’s impossible to stop once you start it. And if you’re an animal lover with a complicated, human life, The $60,000 Dog is a book you should snap up.

Terri Schlichenmeyer has been reading since she was three years old and never goes anywhere without a book. She lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books. Readers with questions or comments may write to Terri in care of this publication.