Grant Hayter-Menzies is the author of From Stray Dog to World War I Hero: The Paris Terrier Who Joined the First Division (Potomac Books, November 2015) and is donating a portion of each book’s sale to Nowzad Dogs, a nonprofit that reunites soldiers who served in Afghanistan with the dog or cat they adopted while deployed.
Whether it’s the stories visitors share at the signing table, or the fact that people will actually go out of their way to brave weather, health issues, a recalcitrant spouse, or traffic jams to come hear you speak about your book and ask you to inscribe it, for an author, book signings are prime occasions to get to know the reading public for which you, as writer, gave years of your life to produce a book they will buy and read.
This past Veterans Day (Remembrance Day in Canada), I had a signing in my small but fiercely bookish, writer- and reader-rich city of Sidney, BC, Canada’s only Booktown. On a day when we all turn our thoughts to those who have given the fullest measure of devotion in wars around the world, emotions were high. I sat at the signing table at Tanner’s Books, stacks of my book in front of me flanking an original photograph of its subject, Rags (1916—1936), mascot of the First Division, hero dog of World War I. Posters for the event, showing the book’s 1925 cover image of Sgt. George E. Hickman gazing happily at Rags, had been put up for some days, the event timed to begin just after the end of the Remembrance Day ceremonies at the nearby cenotaph. As bagpipes trailed away, people with red poppies glowing on dark lapels streamed into Sidney’s main street, where Tanner’s sits, and I watched while somber faces looked up, saw the poster, me at the table, and visibly brightening, decided to come in.
“Dogs are better than human beings,” wrote Emily Dickinson. “They know, but do not tell.” They also do not judge—another improvement on the human condition. But as a biographer (and human), I often categorize people, trying to guess their natures from outward evidence. And it would have been easy to judge the people who wandered up to my table, just from their covers. I thought I had pegged the kind-faced middle-aged woman who approached, picked up a book and listened while I explained to others the purple poppy I wore in memory of animals who served in mankind’s wars, or that a portion of each book’s sale is donated to Nowzad Dogs, the animal charity founded by Pen Farthing to reunite dogs and cats with the soldiers they befriended while deployed in Afghanistan. I envisioned the woman listening a while, putting the book down, moving away. I was wrong. I glanced up to find her crying. I went around the table to hug her. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I wanted to ask you to sign a copy for my son. He’s a soldier.” I told her I would do so gladly. “What is his name?” I asked. She gave it, then more tears came. “Can you add the name of his dog?” She told me her son had wrapped his life around this dog; had tried to get a posting as close to his home province as possible—because of his dog. I was reminded of what Pen Farthing wrote in the Foreword of my book: “There is no stronger bond than that between a man and his dog.” Here was proof, before my own tearful eyes.
I should have realized a topic that moves me deeply might move others, too. But I’ve come to see that dogs are not just the great levellers of artificial human constructs around social class—a dog meets another on the street, whether one guardian lives on Park Avenue and the other in the Bronx, as unquestioned equals. Dogs are also great unifiers. They brought together, as Rags did, disparate officers and men of an entire Division, and they continue to unite the shared but hidden memories—of grief, of love, of hope—that bind so many strangers walking to and fro outside a village bookstore, if we only let a little dog remind us.