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Monday, April 18, 2011

Snook Alone, written by Marilyn Nelson and illustrated by Timothy Basil Ering. Candlewick, Random House. 2010. $20.00 ages 5 and up


"Sometimes they worked in the sugar cane. Snook prowled the forest of stalks, and rats squealed with terror at his approach. Sometimes Snook routed a sleeping hare and won a high-speed race with a delicious prize."

Abba Jacob and his terrier Snook share a peaceful co-existence on an island faraway. Abba Jacob fills his days with prayer and work. Snook keeps the rats and mice at bay and out of Abba Jacob's kitchen; but, he also spends much of his day being a shadow of protection to his beloved monk:

"After the last silence,
Abba Jacob blew out the candle, bowed,
and walked down the steps and crossed the lawn
to his house to go to bed.
Snook slept on the veranda
on a green cushion,
with one ear periscoping out of sleep
and every sleeping muscle poised."

Abba Jacob is asked to help catalog the plants and animals on nearby islands. Snook happily tags along. His job with the rats and mice is important for keeping the burgeoning population in check there, too.  He takes to his task with perseverance and feverish delight. Snook is hard at work when a storm threatens and Abba Jacob cannot get his attention before they are forced to flee to safety.

Snook returns to shore to find his friend gone and soon must seek shelter for himself  'in a cave of pemphis roots'. As the days pass, Snook proves himself to be adept at finding what he needs for survival. The days are endless and he longs for his dear, dear friend:

"Snook woke up every morning before dawn.
He waited.
Then he foraged, moused, and drank.
Then he waited again.
The silence was black and empty."

His loneliness is palpable in the brilliantly written text, and in the astonishing multimedia artwork. Timothy Basil Ering uses ink and acrylics to create paintings that depict the warmth of the friendship, the fierceness of the storm, the terror of nighttime island visitors, the abject desolation of being alone, and the joy of reunion, while also creating expressive and powerful line drawings to add context and emotion. 

Of her amazing book, Marilyn Nelson says:

'For me, this book is about silence and what we can learn from it. Snook has lived his whole life according to the rhythm of the life of Abba Jacob, and Abba Jacob’s life is work and prayer. So Snook falls into his own rhythm of work and prayer. It’s not prayer in his mind—you know, he’s a dog. But it’s work and silence; it’s work and longing—and longing is another word for prayer.

The turning point is when Snook finds in himself compassion—not self-pity, not just longing for his master—but compassion for other living creatures. And that’s what happens in the incident with the sea turtle. Snook achieves a kind of spiritual mastery. And then when he’s reunited with Abba Jacob, he’s a dog with a difference. He’s a dog who has learned something about what silence can teach all of us."

To show they are happy to be eventually reunited, I will leave to the author:

"Then he jumped and raced in a yapping circle
of pee-dribbling delight.
As the boat skimmed sand
and the man at the tiller cut the motor,
Abba Jacob splashed out.
He ran to meet the barking somersault
that leaped into his arms."

No one could say that better!

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