Review: Soldier Dog by Sam Angus

soldierdogPublished by Feiwel & Friends
Released April 16, 2013
256 pages
Where I got it: ARC received for review from publisher
Rating: ★★★☆☆

Description (from Goodreads):

With his older brother gone to fight in the Great War, and his father prone to sudden rages, 14-year-old Stanley devotes himself to taking care of the family’s greyhound and puppies. Until the morning Stanley wakes to find the puppies gone.

Determined to find his brother, Stanley runs away to join an increasingly desperate army. Assigned to the experimental War Dog School, Stanley is given a problematic Great Dane named Bones to train. Against all odds, the pair excels, and Stanley is sent to France.

But the war in France is larger and more brutal than Stanley ever imagined. How can one young boy survive and find his brother with only a dog to help?

Soldier Dog was a bit of a departure from what I normally read, but it’s good to mix things up from time to time, isn’t it? It’s a middle grade historical fiction novel that takes place during the tail-end of World War I. Fourteen-year-old Stanley lives alone with his angry father after the death of his mother and the enlistment of his older brother. When their prize dog gets pregnant by a local mutt, Stanley’s father writes off the puppies before they’re even born. Stanley, though, loves dogs, and does whatever he can to make sure they’re born healthy. He picks one from the litter to be his own. His father has other ideas, though, and after Stanley’s dad pitilessly gets rid of all the puppies, including Stanley’s, Stanley has had enough. He decides to lie about his age and enlist in the army, to be sent to the front in France.

In the military, everybody seems to recognize how truly young and out of place Stanley is. Fortunately, he learns of a new unit that is training messenger dogs. I have to warn readers who are sensitive about animal death: this book includes dog death. However, the dogs are soldiers and it is treated the same as human death. It is World War I, after all. Being middle grade fiction, though, the death is necessary to the story and never gratuitous.

For being a World War I story, I felt like the war isn’t really at the heart of the book, but serves as a means of escape for the protagonist. While the story might make young readers curious about the war, I don’t think it will teach them a great deal about the major players or the reasons behind the conflict. I love that Angus includes real photographs of the actual messenger dogs and has a historical note and bibliography at the end, though.

Soldier Dog is a bit of a heart-wrencher, but it will have readers sympathizing with Stanley and hoping that he’ll finally get a dog he can keep. This could be a good readalike for fans of War Horse.

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