December's 14 Must-Read Books
Treat Us Like Dogs and We Will Become Wolves, Carolyn Chute's quirky, intensely original novel, is an intellectual page-turner. Its heroine, Ivy—part Lois Lane, part Nancy Drew, but sporting purple hair and fish tattoos—is a cub reporter for a local newspaper, the Record Sun, where big stories don't come around too often. Ivy believes she has sniffed out a colossal exposé, the potential subject being Gordon St. Onge, a.k.a. the Prophet, charismatic leader of a mysterious school located on Heart's Content Road in Egypt, Maine. No one is completely sure what is happening on the settlement's grounds. Is it really a school? Or a cult? A secret anti-government society? After a few meetings with Gordon, Ivy's suspicions grow, but she also finds herself falling for his charms.
Sprinkled throughout are commentaries from a variety of unlikely (and sometimes otherworldly) sources, each with its own hand-drawn avatar. A flying saucer icon signals the observations of extraterrestrials. A dollar sign represents the voice of corporations and mocks the characters' naïve belief in American democracy. Characters speaking from the future are indicated with a star, and a pair of heart-shaped Lolita sunglasses announces insights from Jane, a 6-year-old who takes the old adage about the mouths of babes to a whole new level.
Ivy eventually gets her exposé, and the fates of the school and its citizens, who rightly or wrongly chafe at comparisons to Waco, Texas, are turned upside down. All the attention attracts the scrutiny of law enforcement and more than one local militia, leading to a clash that is as much personal as political.
Treat Us Like Dogs... is the work of a writer who defies classification. As in her acclaimed 1985 debut, The Beans of Egypt, Maine, Chute combines strident political commentary with humor, surrealism, and inventive language. Her novel, like its author (who lives off the grid in the woods of Maine), is multilayered and complex, deeply critical of society but fiercely devoted to humans.