Simon & Schuster / Pocket Books, 1990; 242 pages
At the beginning of Terry Kay's To Dance with the White Dog, 80-year-old Sam Peek has just lost his wife Cora after fifty-seven years of marriage. Soon after her death, a pure white dog appears at Sam's place and stays with him. The couple's seven grown children are worried about their father – at first, no one but Sam sees the dog. And even after White Dog makes herself visible to the rest of his family, Sam's conviction that she's safeguarding him makes them uneasy. Sam even claims that White Dog dances with him; and she does, but not while any of the kids are around.
The two daughters who live nearby, Kate and Carrie, are especially worried. Before they actually see White Dog, they're convinced Sam's obsession is a sign of mental decline. There's a wonderfully funny episode in which they dress up in commando-type black garb, complete with fireplace ashes to blacken their faces, and stake out Sam's house in the early morning hours, trying to get a glimpse of his canine guardian. Of course, Sam discovers them – with some help from their husbands – and begins to think the "girls" might be having mental breakdowns of their own. Well, I guess guys gotta stick together. As Kate's husband Noah tells her:
"Good Lord, Kate, don't you know your daddy better'n that? The two of you are aggravating him to death. All he's doing is paying you back. He's putting you on. You know he likes to do that. . . . The trouble with the two of you is you don't know how a man feels when he can't do something anymore."White Dog always seems to be around when Sam needs help or company. She even accompanies him on a journey back to Madison Agricultural and Mechanical School for a class reunion. It was there in 1915 that Sam met his future bride, Cora, who was a young nursing student at the time. While Sam and White Dog are traveling, Sam becomes confused and loses his way – the first real sign that his children's fears might be justified. But it turns out all right. Sam is rescued by a passing Samaritan, and eventually meets and spends a few hours with an old friend from the past.
The reunion turns out to be Sam's last lengthy excursion. As the months pass, he stays close to home – developing an interest in genealogy and writing everyday in his journal (". . . brief, daily footnotes of brief, daily occurrences"). And White Dog stays with him right up to the end. Just before he dies, Sam tells his youngest son, James, that he believed White Dog was Cora who had come back to watch over him. Of course, we readers have believed that all along, as well.
To Dance with the White Dog won Terry Kay the Southeastern Library Association Outstanding Author of the Year Award in 1991. Kay has said that the novel had its start as a work of nonfiction in honor of his own parents' long marriage; even the visit by the white dog is supposed to be based in fact. It's a very moving story – even an inspirational one. But it's also packed with humor and wonderful, memorable characters. The relationships among Sam Peek and his children feel very authentic. And Kay has a fine ear – all the dialogue sounds absolutely real. It's a great read – sad, funny, heartwarming but not saccharine. And although it forces readers to confront the subjects of grief, old age, and death, it's really a celebration of life, love and family ties.