Originally published in 2000, this book is a magical mystery tour of the lives of a group of disparate folks in the Oregon farm country. Heartfelt and heartwarming, the characters sneak in and steal your heart before you know it.
The tale begins with the life-changing decision of Mara O'Shaunnessey to break her engagement - being charged $10 for gas for an emergency visit to the hospital was definitely the last straw. Leaving her beloved irises and lilies temporarily planted in her grandmother’s garden, she strives to remake herself, and her life. What she doesn’t realize is that as she is doing her makeover, her love, strength and character help mend both physical and psychological fences of the lives she touches. The magical ripples of time and place blend together, and each person is not only touched by Mara but learns the inherent skill of creating their own lives anew and, in turn, opening hearts reach out to others.
Edith and Earl McRae have been married for more than 60 years. Their lives have settled into a rhythmic pattern, but there is no joy, and no hope, left for them to share. Their grandson Daniel has alienated himself from them, unable to handle the pain and sorrow that envelops him when he is with them. His parents died in an auto accident when he was only eight, and his grandparents raised him; but their expectations, and their grief, drove him to Alaska, and the life of a fisherman. The strands of the story are held together not by events and actions, but by the personalities and characters of those involved. Mara’s ability to see and read auras, and her tendency to pop into dreams that she shares in her sleep-hours, make the individuals swirl around each other in new, startling ways. Moreover, no one can tell if that is a good thing or a bad.
A vegetarian, Mara unashamedly adopts a 4-H pig after watching its young owner sob at the fair when it comes time to sell her beloved porker. She promises to give Harvey a good home and never use him for a barbeque - only Mara, who got a job as the new art teacher in town, has no place to live. She can hardly ride around with Harvey in the bed of her truck forever. Thank goodness, her act of generosity does not go unnoticed, and her need for a home brings her to the doorstep of Edith and Earl’s ranch. Events are set in motion, and the characters’ lives start to weave together.
The depths of characterization that Kaya McLaren develops are truly great for a first novel - rich in personality, three-dimensional and believable; it soon becomes apparent that McLaren sees the characters as she creates them. Mara’s idiosyncrasies are cleverly developed, and although strong opinions are registered (vegetarianism versus omnivorism, organized religious practices versus personal spirituality), they merely flesh out Mara’s personality rather than slap the reader with opinionated blather. Young and old readers alike will find much poignancy and realism in the relationship between Edith and Earl. When Earl discovers a lump on his neck, his concerns for his wife’s future become pivotal. Daniel, the grandson, comes to visit his grandparents during this time, and their mutual pain and frustration is soothed by Mara’s presence. Mara’s enchanting beliefs and her behavior are reminiscent of Colleen McCullough’s The Ladies of Missalonghi and Sarah Addison Allen’s Garden Spells.
Delightfully warm and passionate, Mara and her relationships with people and animals create a much longed-for environment for those who live nearby. When Mara begins to create art in her surroundings, she includes a huge dog mural on the side of an outbuilding. Not just any dog either; this dream dog is one Mara has “seen” and the canine companion she’d like to have. Redesigning her entryway with a tower oddly similar to a small church tower and hung with wind-chimes prompts Earl and Edith to call her house “Church of the Dog.” When that self-same dog shows up in reality, fur wet from a storm, Mara names him Zeus, for the thunder that brought him to her. Mara contemplates to herself, “Maybe dogs are teachers. Maybe they are sent to us from Heaven to teach ups how to be protective Guardian Angels for each other here on Earth.”
Slowly lives begin to grow and change. Edith finds Earl reaching out to her, and in Daniel’s temporary return, Edith’s heart begins to find solace for the loss of her only child, Sam, 24 years earlier. Past regrets and sorrows melt, and as the older couple find their path back to one another, Daniel too finds healing. Through it all, Mara provides not only that therapeutic touch but also plans and ideas for the ranch and for the future of each of them. The beauty and skill of the author is so evident in her creation of the character of Mara. None of Mara’s abilities are questioned, and all of them work together to subtly and somehow realistically bring completion to the story, and its inhabitants. The reader’s life is enhanced as well, for in discovering what makes Earl, Edith Daniel and Mara tick, they can also view their own lives, and perhaps discover enrichment and joy in themselves. That in itself is a remarkable for any novel, and a first novel at that. Kaya McLaren’s second book (On The Divinity of Second Chances) came out between the first and the current release of “Church of the Dog,” and it too looks to be a winner.
Many books are promoted as great summer reads, but this book is one that deserves a permanent place on your bookshelf, for rereading whatever the season.