Fifty Shades of Greyhound

08th January 2020

Taking in everything from Ancient Egypt to the English Civil War, a new book for children takes a light-hearted look at major historical events – from a canine perspective

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What do Kafka, Chekhov, Virginia Woolf and Paul Auster have in common? They all wrote stories about dogs, of course. And now, joining their illustrious number comes American children's writer Mackenzi Lee, whose latest book, The History of the World in 50 Dogs, takes us on an amusing and enlightening (dog) walk through time with some of history's unsung canine heroes. Lee says she is always looking for new ways to present history that will engage her young readers. "Taking a dog's point of view adds a human element to people we generally only think of as monolithic figures from the past, rather than actual people,” she explains, adding that her love of history started as a child, so “I always feel like I'm writing for my younger self”. Her playful, often tongue-in-cheek approach is clear from the chapter titles, such as “Conquistadogs! In Which Dogs Are Forced to Be Complicit in Colonialism”.

Taking in everything from foiled royal assassinations to famous archeological discoveries, Lee relies on the chirpy innocence of dogs to underscore our own potential to be cruel, and our responsibility to be kind. She makes it clear that all too often we have expected our innocent dogs to fight our battles – literally – as she sets out to recount the complex details of events such as the English Civil War through a perspective that makes the heroes and villains of history seem hilarious, irrational and at times downright odd. At the same time, she celebrates the canine co-stars within and behind each story, reminding us to adore them as much as she tells us Lord Byron adored his dog Boatswain, who was laid to rest in a lavish tomb larger than Byron’s own. 

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Asked for her personal favourite story, and dog, Lee struggles. “Oh gosh, this is the most impossible question! There is a particular story from World War I about a messenger dog who helped save the city of Verdun, that really affected me when I first read it. But it's hard to compare that sort of incredible story with learning the charming details of the lifestyles of the Royal corgis. If reincarnation exists, I'd like to come back as a Royal corgi.” She tracked down her “star dogs” in a variety of ways – some stories she already knew about, like the tale of Greyfriars Bobby, a Skye Terrier who found fame in 19th-century Edinburgh for spending 14 years guarding the grave of his owner – until he died himself. For others she pinpointed a historical event first – such as the sinking of the Titanic – "and then started digging around to find out if there were any dogs on board. There were!" 

Lee has always loved dogs. She grew up with them as a child and made an active decision to welcome them back into her life after struggles with depression in adulthood. She realised that in tough times, petting a dog was one of the few things that brought comfort. “It became a balm – something I could find happiness in when everything else seemed pointless.” Now she shares her home with Queenie, her St Bernard. “She drinks from the bathtub, snores loudly, loves peanut butter and watermelon and looking out of the window at the world passing by. I love her to pieces.”

Lee's book closes with an homage to the now-extinct dog breeds of the past. Beginning with the Turnspit dog, employed in nearly every kitchen in 16th-century Britain as a glorified utensil to turn a spit above the fireplace, a troubling trend reveals itself: each dog goes into extinction when its human purpose becomes defunct. The Turnspit, amusingly nicknamed the “dizzy dog”, Lee tells us, was replaced by a machine that performed the very same function – and the breed died out. The book leaves us with an impression of the power we have as breeders and buyers of the adorable domesticated creatures who love us unconditionally. Lee reminds us not to take them for granted. Who knows, your dog could save you from assassination or make you rich with its next excavation.   

This article is taken from the winter issue of Goodwood Magazine.

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