Book review: A new leaf for an old dog in Tom Ryan’s ‘Will’s Red Coat’ |

Book review: A new leaf for an old dog in Tom Ryan’s ‘Will’s Red Coat’

Karina Wetherbee
Special to the Daily

Throughout history there have been inspirational wordsmiths, individuals whose eloquence and poignancy of message inspire and take hold. When these talents present themselves within someone who also permeates a tremendous amount of decency and grace, the results can enchant and transport even the most cynical of hearts. Author Tom Ryan is one such gentle spirit, who first detailed his story of personal redemption in “Following Atticus,” in which he delighted many with the deeply moving account of his beleaguered soul’s renewal at the side of his beloved miniature schnauzer, Atticus.

Ryan has dived once more into that world he shared with his remarkable dog, but this time to bless his loyal readers with an account of another lost soul, a 15-year-old schnauzer named William, whose brief journey at his side is so touching and profoundly inspiring that it deserves its own book.

“Will’s Red Coat; The Story of One Old Dog Who Chose to Live Again” is transportive storytelling, an unequivocal reminder of the power of love and the fortitude of tenderness toward all living things.

“A tiny red coat with a thick red collar dangles from a hook, It looks a lot like Christmas and is just about the right size for an elf. There is a bit of magic in it.” And the magic that inhabited the little life who occupied that fluffy red coat — and who came to occupy the lives and hearts of Atticus and Ryan and everyone who came to know him — is the focus of the book’s story.

In a world where hundreds of thousands of dogs and cats are forgotten and neglected, Will’s sad origins were not unique, but Ryan’s immersive response to the old dog’s needs is very much so. “Age had not been kind to him and fate had cast him adrift.” Dropped at a high kill shelter, few saw redemption in Will’s shattered little soul. He was deaf, could barely walk, had no control over his bodily functions, and he tended to lash out in a biting frenzy of despair. In his writing of the journey with Will, Ryan’s deep empathy shows, as does his honesty, for often he doubted that he could give the dog a place to be, to die — for that was all that anyone, including Ryan, had initially expected.

But as Ryan struggled to provide for Will, he drew on the natural landscape right outside his New Hampshire door for inspiration, as it had been a powerful source of solace in his own life. “For most of my life I didn’t understand the music of the forest, and I was afraid of the song.” Slowly, though, Ryan had turned his back on the urban jungle that had been steadily consuming his soul, for it was the wild places — and his love for Atticus — that had saved him. Maybe, he thought, it could save Will, too.

Aside from the healing calm of the outdoors, Ryan looked to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau for insight, for they had been the muses he had looked to when raising Atticus. “I suppose that might make me the only person to ever nurture first a puppy and then an angry old dog on the tenets of transcendentalism.”

Thus, Will began his journey to peace. The road was bumpy, but Ryan was determined to not only give the old dog a safe place to die, but a place to live and be loved. Ryan’s aunt, a healer, encouraged him to follow the Navajo practice of “walking in beauty,” adding that Will had “been run over by a Mack truck full of crazy,” and he needed to feel love and regain the ability to trust.

So when Will lashed out, which was often, Ryan strove to respond with compassion and patience. He discovered that the frail little dog could feel vibrations through his surroundings, and he seemed to respond to music, leading Ryan to hope that through soothing melodies Will might “feel life again.” Soon, the musical selections, which he called, “Willabies,” were a daily ritual of calm.

The next step was to try to give the immobile dog the joy of a mountaintop, where he and Atticus felt most at peace. A sturdy off-road pet stroller was purchased, and a kind friend assisted Ryan as they mostly carried the stroller to the summit, with Atticus leading the way. Ryan risked a bite from Will, and held him aloft, just as he had once done with Atticus when he was a puppy. A deep sigh, a lick, and Will’s entombed spirit soared. He never tried to bite again.

No longer was the touch of a human hand a terror for Will; he craved it, and Atticus’s fans found room in their hearts for the little dog who seemed reborn; “as Will aged, he was becoming younger.” As though compensating for his lack of hearing, it became clear that Will’s sense of smell was in prime shape, and he was a lover of flowers, so much so that Ryan planted a wildflower garden just for Will, and the local flower shop selected their most fragrant blooms for the little dog to enjoy.

As Ryan shared Will’s love of flowers on the “Following Atticus” Facebook page, bouquets began to arrive from all over the country, as did homemade quilts and blankets.

As Will’s story blossoms alongside the flowers he loved so dearly, Ryan’s obvious love for “beautiful words” shows on every page, and the beauty he puts forth in sharing Will’s journey will leave the reader in awe that there is a human such as this on the earth. “Will’s Red Coat” is a remarkable, soul-shaking read, an inspiring book that is about so much more than a sad little dog. Every word is a treasure, and the story of an exceptional man and his little dogs will linger on in the mind like the scent of the roses that surrounded Will when his life finally ended. “The soul may have floated out of sight, but that little white dog never will.”

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