Rose in a Storm, which goes on sale today, is Jon Katz’s first novel in 10 years. It’s also the first book of his I’ve read. I received an advance copy through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program and was looking forward to giving Katz’s books a shot, as I’ve heard very positive comments in the past.
A little background on the author: Katz runs Bedlam Farm, where he currently takes care of four dogs. Rose is actually one of his dogs, a border collie, and I believe the fictional Rose is at least partly based on her namesake. His extensive experience with dogs makes me think Katz knows what he’s talking about, that I should’ve just believed in the fictional Rose and her incredible instincts and abilities because he’s probably seen similar behavior in his own Rose. But I just couldn’t.
Sam, a farmer, and Rose, his working dog, are the novel’s primary characters. There are a few other people who drift in and out of the story, including Sam’s wife Katie, who is no longer around and appears only in Sam’s and Rose’s thoughts. As the book opens, a massive storm is about to hit, and Sam and Rose are preparing the farm: getting animals into their shelters, hauling food and water, ensuring the de-icers and backup generators are running. When the storm arrives, it’s worse than anything either of them has experienced before. Completely isolated in the middle of the blizzard, they must find a way to keep as much of the farm alive and running as they can.
The plot wasn’t particularly complex. In fact, to me, it felt a bit like an afterthought, a way to tie together a commentary on the inner workings of dogs. Katz explores in great depth what goes through Rose’s mind as well as her relationships with the farm and its animals, her work, and Sam. The book, which is only around 200 pages to begin with, would have been quite slim without these meditations.
Some of the reflections were interesting: Rose’s interactions with the sheep, the way she understands that it’s time to work, how she keeps looking for Katie because she never actually saw Katie leave the farm. However, there were a few moments that stuck out as being particularly hard to swallow. The first was about 80 pages in, when Rose has a bizarre sort of dream sequence. She experiences herself as a wolf cub, watches her mother and siblings be killed, then follows the smell of food to some early humans and eventually befriends them, switching her loyalty from nature to man. It seems to suggest some sort of primal knowledge shared by all dogs, that without living through it themselves they would have some residual memory of their species’s gradual domestication. 70 pages later, as Rose gazes into the eyes of a fellow animal who is dying, Rose experiences the animal’s past, shared with her in images, as though it was Rose’s own story. And then there was a sort of half dream in which Rose travels to the land of blue lights / dog souls and communes with her mother before returning to her body and the farm. She later returns to escort another animal’s soul there. It was a little too much for me.
I wasn’t particularly impressed with Katz’s writing, either. To me, Rose in a Storm read like fiction written by someone who’s used to writing nonfiction. Which, if he hasn’t written fiction in 10 years, is probably an accurate description of Katz. There was too much straightforward narration for the story to flow, too much repetition. There were times when Katz referred to two male or two female characters in the same sentence using only pronouns. Yes, you could figure out which “she” referred to the woman and which referred to the dog, but each time it caused my attention to snag a little instead of flowing continuously. Pardon me for splitting hairs, but these are some of my pet peeves.
There were also small inconsistencies that stuck out to me. When I read, I tend to imagine the scene in my head, noting where characters and buildings are located, the state of various objects, and so forth. So when a bowl of water that had begun to crust over with ice mere moments after being set out in the frigid farmhouse was miraculously thawed and and drinkable hours later without the addition of heat, it irked me. The snow is ice-covered, sharp enough to cut a dog’s paws, yet the author points out that thank goodness the snow is soft enough for the dog to dig through. The dog ignores the sheep by…looking at them? For me, little discrepancies like these can cause the reality of a story to unravel.
I also felt disconnected from the book, the characters. I felt the narration was extremely objective; I didn’t feel at all attached to the outcome. And though I never thought I’d get to use the term deus ex machina again after high school lit class, I was rather annoyed to discover something resembling one near the end of this tale.
One redeeming factor of the book for me was Katie, even though she is not physically present on the farm during the storm. Her relationship with Rose, as remembered by both Rose and Sam, was the one I found most believable.
I really wanted to like Rose in a Storm, but it just wasn’t my thing. People who enjoy heartwarming / heart-wrenching stories about animals and who have a high tolerance for what I would call the very slightly supernatural will most likely enjoy this novel. Jon Katz has tons of fans out there, and I’m sure Rose in a Storm will find many satisfied readers. I encourage you to check out his website to read about the dogs and see some of his exquisite photography from around the farm. I may end up trying some of his nonfiction someday; I think it might go down easier. The novel just wasn’t for me.