Guest book review by Peter J. Wolf
It was nearly 20 years ago when Library Director Vicki Myron discovered a tiny ginger-colored kitten in the overnight book drop of the Spencer Public Library. “I know melting can be a cliché,” writes Myron, “but I think that’s what actually happened to me at that moment: I lost every bone in my body. I am not a mushy person. I’m a single mother and a farm girl who has steered her life through hard times, but this was so, so…unexpected.”
At the time, the small northwestern Iowa town was just beginning to pull out of the farm crisis that crippled much of the Midwest during the 1980s. And the arrival of little Dewey Readmore Books, as the kitten was soon named, proved to be a very good omen. If nothing else, he was a survivor. After all, the thermometer had dipped down to minus 15 the night he was put into the library’s drop box (how he got there is a mystery that’s never been solved).
But Dewey did more than just survive. As the adopted library cat, he absolutely thrived. Soon, the town of Spencer was undergoing its own turnaround, thanks at least in part to Dewey, as Myra points out:
…I don’t want to make too much of this one turn of events, because Dewey didn’t put food on anybody’s table. He didn’t create jobs. He didn’t turn our economy around. But one of the worst things about bad times is the effect on your mind. Bad times drain you of energy. They occupy your thoughts. They taint everything in your life. Bad news is as poisonous as bad bread. At the very least, Dewey was a distraction.
But he was so much more. Dewey’s story resonated with the people of Spencer. We identified with it. Hadn’t we all been shoved down the library drop box by the banks? By outside economic forces? By the rest of America, which ate our food but didn’t care about the people who grew it?
Twenty years later, Dewey’s story is resonating with people well beyond Spencer. It’s been on The New York Times’ list of hardcover nonfiction best sellers since its release in September (at last check it was Number 2).
The timing is uncanny, of course. The economic conditions described by Myra and co-author Bret Witter sound all too familiar. If there was ever a time for Dewey it’s now. But just as Dewey the cat was more than a distraction, Dewey the book is more than a fluffy diversion. Carefully interwoven with Dewey’s tale is Myra’s own compelling story, as well as a brief history of Spencer–a back-story that provides both context and a human-interest element.
All of which gives Dewey a timeless quality–perhaps the real secret to its success. At its heart, this is a story about how companion animals enrich our lives, and in many cases, actually make us better people–more closely approximating the people we wish we were.
Publishers Weekly suggests that Dewey’s been “anthropomorphized to a degree that can strain credulity,” a criticism–if sales are any indication–easily dismissed by fans of the book (or, indeed, anybody who’s ever bonded with an animal). In any case, given the recent work of Temple Grandin and Patricia McConnell, among others, it’s clear that we still have an awful lot to learn about the emotional lives of animals.
How much of an impact can an animal have? How many lives can one cat touch? These questions, from the blurb inside the book’s jacket, are far too complex to be answered in any single volume, of course. But Dewey’s legacy doesn’t end with the book, either. In addition to an all-things-Dewey (including book tour dates) website and Dewey’s Facebook page (with nearly 3,000 fans), Dewey makes up a significant part of Spencer’s Wikipedia entry. And, according to Variety, a film adaptation of Dewey, starring Meryl Streep, is in the works.
That’s pretty good for an abandoned kitten from small-town Iowa–not that Dewey would have made a big deal of it, mind you.