Jon Katz knows dogs well. He has written about them in books (A Dog Year, The New Work of Dogs), online columns and magazines. But he didn’t know them quite as well as even he thought he did until he decided to move to an upstate New York farm and live the country life with sixteen sheep, three Border Collies, two donkeys and an assortment of good-hearted townfolk that would become his new family.
The Dogs of Bedlam Farm is a beautiful, funny, tragic, profound and deeply moving book about Katz’s life on the farm as he learns to live with three very distinct dogs, all of which he hopes to turn into successful working dogs. There is the sweet and eager Rose, the untrainable Orson, and the laid-back Homer. There are also sixteen sheep to learn about, work, herd, shear, and eventually even assist in lambing. Oh, and two delightful donkeys named Carol and Fanny who provide a sort of comic turn to every event on the farm (and who stole my heart from their first introductions into the farm fray).
As Katz, a New Jersey suburban transplant, adjusts to farm life, he comes to understand more about himself through his changing relationship with his dogs. He learns a very important lesson from a mentor-like woman named Carolyn, a dog trainer and the owner of the sheep Katz inherits, who tells him that if he wants to have a better dog, he must first become a better human, and this single admonition serves as the backdrop for all of the author’s experiences with nature, animal and human. As the new “Flatlander” in the tiny farm haven, the author must not only find new ways to relate to the environment, which becomes harsh and unforgiving at times, but with the people who are there to offer help, advise, and sometimes a gun to do the dirty work Katz is not sure he can do.
Throughout this absolutely moving book, which turns from hilarious to starkly real to heartbreaking to enlightening with each passing chapter, we become invested in the outcome of Katz’s farm life. We cheer for him when he successfully brings several new lambs into the world, cry for him when he loses one to his own human stupidity. We laugh at his foibles and our hearts break with joy when he reunites with his sister Jean because of the dogs that serve as the center of their universes. And always there are the three dogs that orbit Katz like planets, each giving off their own gravitational pull on his heart and his soul. Rose, the brave and willing to please. Orson, the individualist with an attitude. And Homer, sweet, sweet Homer, who teaches Katz a lesson about sacrifice that will make you tear up and smile at the same time.
Whether you love dogs or not, this book will touch you on so many levels and make you think about your own relationships to family, friends, and the world you choose to live in. If you, like Katz, are a “dog person,” you will rejoice at his journey from beginning to end, and cherish every moment along the way.