Man’s Best Friend

An old dog learns and loves anew in a former newspaperman’s latest book.


Will’s Red Coat by Tom Ryan

Published by William Morrow, 288 pages, $26

Couples in which both parties are human could take a lesson in loving from Tom Ryan’s relationship with Will, his schnauzer. When this memoir begins, Ryan is already deeply entwined with his other dog, Atticus. Together, they climbed all 48 of New Hampshire’s 4,000-foot peaks—twice, in 90 days—an adventure chronicled in his previous book, Following Atticus. Now his good heart welcomes a very different dog, a troubled rescue.

Ryan takes on the difficult work of nurturing Will, a deaf, elderly dog who bites the hand that feeds him, needs diapers and requires endless holding after years of neglect. Ryan, too, has a painful past; he lost his mother at age 7, and his father had a volcanic temper. Years later, before launching the Newburyport newspaper he ran for more than a decade, Ryan took a job working with lonely elders in a nursing home, and he draws on the same generous spirit to care for wobbly Will, who—slowly—improves. Life outside the crate is magical. Meanwhile, thousands of Facebookers accompany their journey virtually. Deliveries for the flower-loving Will overwhelm the house like an indoor garden, and when Atticus gets sick, their followers send $7,000 in donations for vet care.

Ryan’s musings suggest he’s discussing things with Will and Atticus in some private common language. He ponders sickness, healing and what we learn from painful experiences, thinking about transcendence with help from philosophical friends like Thoreau and his own Aunt Marijane, a former nun whose spiritual insights include welcome humor.

From Page 109: When the full moon took center stage, I held Will up to see it. I don’t doubt that he did. In the middle of that darkness sat a huge glowing orb, climbing slowly. To look at him next to me, and see the moon reflected in his eyes, his mouth slightly open, all I could think was that as Will aged, he was becoming younger.
Whenever there was a new texture or smell or sight to behold, I wanted him to take in every bit of it. Knowing he’d likely been kept captive in a crate, I wanted him to be free.

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