(Edmonds, WA: Ravenna Press 2021)
Raven with huge paws and a brown snout. Boots with an active tongue and a fluffy tail. Bird the husky mix who “sings.” Spiff. Doodle. Elle. These are but a few of the delightful dog characters running throughout Kim Chinquee’s Snowdog, a collection of flash fiction divided into three parts. In the first section, the speaker is the persona of the writer and uses her real name. For the last two sections, the speaker takes on different characters and points of view. These flash explorations into the daily human moments, with and about dogs, reveal more than one might initially expect.
Like the individual pieces themselves, Chinquee has a distinctive style: short yet punchy prose. Chinquee is not afraid of simplicity, of sentences like: “Elle met Jim in high school. They were sweethearts.” Or, “She cuts potatoes the way he likes. I like her.” Though the sentences are stripped of flare, the images are sharp and often poignant in their directness. A few examples:
Be your best self, says my dad to me in a dream. In real life, he doesn’t say this. He says things like, I’m sorry I was such a bad dad. Please don’t tell anyone about me.
A story called “Airfare,” which shows the speaker returning to New York to escape an unspecified suffocation she feels around her boyfriend, complicates the speaker’s sense of independence. Once she goes “home” to New York, she notices all the “stuff” in her apartment, that “the bleach smell lingers,” suggesting a sterility in contrast to the boyfriend’s affections.
Another piece, “Rescue,” renders a moment of the speaker driving to take care of her dog’s dead body. The gutting scene flashes back to the night before when the speaker told the Chihuahua to “Get out” of the bed, “like her father used to.” The piece ends with the narrator pulling over to hold the dog. Though the dog was “a rescue,” the punchy prose and narration demonstrate that the speaker herself was also a kind of rescue.
Each piece in the collection seems to contain a pivotal sentence, a stitch that tethers the scene to a subtle yet deeper significance. Individually, they each have their own flavor, and collectively, a mosaic of themes emerges. Some of those themes include the constant passage of time (played with as a subject but also formally on the page by reordering chronology), and the idea of seasons of change and cycles. As the collection works into the third section, themes of missing, loss, resilience, and sacrifice emerge, as the narrator shows us earlier life losses, such as a father’s psychiatric break. Whenever the images of snowstorms return, they seem to gesture toward resilience and enduring. The speaker says, “I moved here with my boyfriend and our dogs in the middle of a snowstorm.” This is contrasted with a hot pool scene, the speaker imbued with a sense of distance from the characters around her. However, we also know that the speaker chooses this life. “I move a lot. I know what I want,” she later says.
One of the most powerful themes in the collection is nurturing, gently suggested through the use of juxtaposition between the speaker’s experience with motherhood and the way she cares for her dogs. My favorite piece, “Walking the Dog,” flashes back and forth between a dog and the narrator’s grown son who has joined the military, collapsing time to create a crescendo of emotional intensity. “Last night he was a baby. In my arms, in a boat. I felt the water, but thought he was above it. I pulled him up, finally. I had to breathe back into him.” Shortly after, we learn the son “killed people, but said it was for the good of the nation.” The piece ends with the speaker chasing after her dog. “My dog swam, and I swam to get him. He turned into a baby. He was mine, though it took me too long to know that.”
One of the delights of Snowdog is how Chinquee blurs the line between human and animal. In a few instances, dogs and humans share the same names. In other moments, humans are rendered through language we typically associate with dogs. The speaker yowls. She barks. She takes her boyfriend on a walk without making clear who or what she is walking: “Do you hear the rain? I say when walking him at midnight…Twist your tongue, I say. We kiss. He tastes like cherries and rum.” In another scene, with all four dogs in the bed, the speaker seems to lean into her animal affection, cuddling up to her boyfriend to “nuzzle.” This physical, instinctual intimacy that aligns humans and dogs recurs throughout the collection. “I Start to Unleash” is about returning home from walking the dogs, yes, but also the narrator’s own unleashing of her anger. In the closing piece, “How Dogs Experience the World,” the speaker, like a dog, remembers her childhood through a long series of evocative smells.
However, this idea of human and dog similarities is complicated by the use of humor in moments where Chinquee nods to the differences between humans and their pets. Once, she tells her new puppy to “stop acting so dog-like.” In another piece, the speaker and her boyfriend debate puppy names and appropriate food to feed the dog while the black cocker rips apart a stuffed penguin — the puppy is indifferent to these human anxieties.
Fans of short prose and dog enthusiasts alike will enjoy this brief but poignant collection. Chinquee effectively shows us what dogs teach us about being human: the ways we instinctually love and our capacity for embodied presence and joy. She also shows us the ways humans are beautifully animal, too.
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Rachel Rueckert is pursuing an MFA at Columbia University, where she also teaches Contemporary Essays. More of her work can be found at rachelrueckert.com