word craft


Story Behind the Story #63: Old Wolf

My two sons Jack and Robert, though four years apart in age, were insep­a­ra­ble. So when Robert start­ed high school, we thought Jack would need a new, close friend. We found an Alaskan Mala­mute pup­py for him. The sole male in a lit­ter of six, we drove home with the tiny dog on Jack’s lap, while debat­ing the right name for the dog. Jack informed us that Mala­mutes were tra­di­tion­al­ly named after some place in Alaskan geog­ra­phy. Thus the dog came to be named McKinley—after Mt. McKin­ley, the high­est moun­tain in the Unit­ed States. And indeed, McKin­ley grew into a very large animal.

The Good DogMcKin­ley became the clas­sic fam­i­ly dog, loved by all of us and full of love for us—each in a dif­fer­ent way. He was a won­der­ful­ly sweet fel­low, per­haps not the smartest, but intense­ly loy­al. If you know my book The Good Dog, he became the pro­to­type of that eupho­nious pro­tag­o­nist. Even Jack is in the book.

One of my favorite sto­ries about McKin­ley is when Jack became engrossed with Har­ry Pot­ter, so much so that he ignored McKin­ley. One day when Jack took a break from end­less­ly read­ing the book, the dog got on Jack’s bed and deft­ly tore out the com­plete chap­ter that Jack was read­ing. Maybe he was smart.

McKin­ley was not just large, he looked very much like a wolf, so much so that when peo­ple first met him they often backed away. That wolf-look fas­ci­nat­ed me, and led me to learn much about wolves. You will see some of that in The Good Dog, too.

Large work dogs like McKin­ley usu­al­ly live to about thir­teen or four­teen years. Sure enough, when he became thir­teen, McKin­ley became ill with a vari­ety of age-relat­ed sick­ness­es. Over time, despite many vet appoint­ments, he became racked with pain and old age. Under­stand­ably, his per­son­al­i­ty changed. Once, when I was try­ing to help him stand he snapped my hand, draw­ing blood. He died peace­ful­ly as we held him.

Old WolfAll of this is the back­ground for my novel­la, Old Wolf, which is about an aging wolf who has been bad­ly wound­ed. It’s also about the wolf’s rela­tion­ship with a mys­te­ri­ous raven named Mer­la, the Welsh name for Raven. (Remem­ber Mer­lin the magi­cian?) Remark­ably, such rela­tion­ships hap­pen in the real world. It’s also about a boy whose knowl­edge of life and death comes through video games—until he meets the old wolf.

The sto­ry was set in my Col­orado moun­tain world. Bri­an Flo­ca, who did the illus­tra­tions, came for a vis­it to get the set­tings right. There is an image of my rur­al post office, which has a por­tray­al of Dick Jack­son, the edi­tor of the book. As for Brian’s cov­er illus­tra­tion, I nev­er had a bet­ter one.

As for McKin­ley, I still retain a slight scar on my hand where he, in pain, bit me. Now and again I look at that scar, and have many a lov­ing mem­o­ry. Scars can do that.

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