A few days ago, writing about our grandson's tenth birthday, I mentioned this book, a gift on my own ninth birthday, a gift from my maternal grandparents, Edwin and Alma Osborn. I mentioned, as well, that I'd published an essay about it in the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 2003. Here's that piece, unedited, the way I sent it to the paper ...
Opening a 50-year-old Present
Fifty years ago, in November 1953, my grandparents gave me a birthday present I never opened. Oh, I unwrapped it—I was nine at the time, and among the things even the most dense nine-year-old knows is this: Unwrap presents.
So, yes, I unwrapped it. But when I saw what it was—a book—I thanked them with faux enthusiasm and with several tacit queries (Where’s the cap gun? The baseball mitt? The new bicycle?). After the cake and my grandparents were gone, I put the book on a shelf and forgot about it.
And it has sat on a shelf in various houses the past half-century but has so gradually become surrounded and overwhelmed by other books that decades have passed without my even thinking about it. When we packed for our moves, I guess I must have noticed it—“Oh, there’s that old book,” I might have said. And there must have been something about it that prevented me from discarding or giving it away. I’ve kept precious else from my ninth year.
So why didn’t I read it in 1953? (Or 63? or 73? or …?) For one thing, back then, I’m pretty sure the title bothered me: “Greyfriars Bobby.” A book about a dog in
Scotland. That didn’t fit with the sorts of titles I
was reading. “Buffalo Bill” and
“Custer’s Last Stand” were more up my arroyo in those days. I wasn’t even sure what “Greyfriars” meant—it
suggested, maybe, something about hair or whiskers? I wasn’t sure. And “Greyfriars Bobby?” Well, that sounded like a sissy book. No question about it.
Another reason: The cover. It pictured a little hairy dog (I’ve since learned it is a Skye Terrier), the sort of cutsie-pooch that real boys like me disdained. At home, we had a real dog, an All-American, melting-pot mutt—a “Heinz dog,” my dad used to say (57 varieties!). The kind of dog that chased cats and cars, fought much bigger dogs to a stand-still, ferociously defended us against mail carriers and milkmen, killed vermin in the basement and proudly dropped their limp bodies at our feet. So to me, that little Skye Terrier on the cover of that unread book looked like something an old woman would hold on her lap. It looked, well, like a sissy dog.
Finally, “Greyfriars Bobby” had been one of my mother’s favorites stories in her girlhood. She’d lived in
Scotland for a time while her
father was in graduate school. And,
well, that proved that the book was
for girls … or sissies. I was
But the other day—for no real reason—I thought of the book and went looking for it. It took awhile, but I found it after a bit, down on a low shelf behind a piece of furniture, out of sight.
I opened it—and taped to the inside cover was the gift card from my grandparents, both long dead (my grandfather in 1965, my grandmother in 1978). Here’s what it said: “
Nov. 11, 1953 Dear Danny
We hope you’ll enjoy this story as much as your mother did when she was
about your age. Grandma & Grandpa.”
And so I decided to read “Greyfriars Bobby,” to open that gift I’d unwrapped 50 years ago.
As I turned the first few pages, I realized that even if I had started reading it, I could not have made much progress. It’s too difficult. All the dialogue is in Scottish dialect, which would have been impossible for my newly nine self to translate. “Ilka body aboot kens Auld Jock,” comments a character (72). In 2003 I can figure that out (Everyone around knows Old Jack). But in 1953? No way.
The sentences are often long and complicated. Like this one: “The view of the heaped-up and crowded mounds and thickets of old slabs and through-stones, girt all about by time-stained monuments and vaults, and shut in on the north and east by the backs of shops and lofty slum tenements, could not be said to be cheerful” (8). That one would have lowered my nine-year-old eyelids like window shades.
But this time, I read on, propelled by the desire to repay a 50-year-old debt. The story is a touching one, based, it seems, on the actual instance of the incredible loyalty of a dog named Bobby to a departed master, a poor shepherd named John Gray (“Auld Jock”) who passed away in 1858 and was buried in the Greyfriars churchyard in
(The “grey friars,” by the way, were the Franciscans, who wore grey.)
And for 14 years thereafter, the dog Bobby stood guard over Auld Jock’s grave, sleeping on it at night, and earning his keep at the church by dispatching rats and keeping cats away from the low-nesting birds. He became a favorite with the poor children who lived nearby and with a friendly innkeeper who fed him and with various ecclesiastical and civil officials who declined to enforce assorted “no dogs allowed” postings.
There are only a few moments of tension in the novel. (Will Bobby’s actual owner, the man who employed Auld Jock, reclaim him? Will the church officials expel him? Will Bobby have to get a license? Will Bobby escape from
, where he once follows some soldiers,
who decide to keep him?) Edinburgh Castle
And, of course, will Bobby die?
Not in the book, he doesn’t. By the end he is older and more sedentary (his teeth are not so sharp), and folks have already planned a memorial to him (which still stands—check the website: http://www.greyfriarsbobby.co.uk). So, when young readers reach the end on page 208, they do not weep at an actual but at an imminent death. Reason enough to cry.
There is a real social consciousness in the story—a sympathy for the poor, a recognition that dignity cannot be purchased, a contention that those who are well off should do a better job of helping out those who are not. These are the sorts of beliefs my grandparents cherished and worked to instill in their children, and grandchildren. At times, as I read, I could almost hear their voices.
Eleanor Atkinson’s book was first published in 1912, and on the web I recently found (but could not buy) a mint first edition for $1500. Mine is a 1949 reprint but still has a very good dust jacket which bears the image of the little dog, staring right at me. It is a sad, even reproachful look that seems to say: “Why haven’t you opened this book before?” And his mouth is ever so slightly open with just the faintest flash of teeth, as if to warn, “You’d better read this soon, big guy. You’re no spring chicken yourself!”
Since 1912, there have been other books about Bobby by other writers: David Ross, John Mackay, Lavinia Derwent, Forbes Macgregor. Disney made a film in 1961. And now, from the website, you can order all sorts of Greyfriars Bobby-abilia and even subscribe to Greyfriars Bobby Magazine (a quarterly). I didn’t see a bobble-head doll, but I’m sure one must be on the drawing boards. One of those I just might buy.
I remember only one other gift my grandmother gave me, and this one she presented me every single birthday and Christmas. A packet of thank-you notes. And one of my dreary tasks each November 12 and December 26 was to sit down and scrawl my grim thanks to my relatives for all those things I thought I’d deserved simply by virtue of being a child.
And now … how I wish I had read that book in 1953. How I wish I had one of those thank-you notes. How I wish I could sit down and write, “Grandma and Grandpa, thank you for the book. I loved it. I love you. Your grateful grandson … Danny.”