Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Shiloh, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor (1991)

Shiloh is a simple story about a boy who falls in love with an abused dog, and a dog who returns his affection. Anybody who has ever gotten a puppy as a child will be able to relate to the adoration Marty shows the dog he names Shiloh. While this is a story for young children, its themes and ethical dilemmas are much more sophisticated than some books written for adults. Naylor asks some very interesting questions for parents to discuss with their kids, and even one another, questions that don't necessarily have a right or wrong answer.

Marty comes across a distressed young dog one day, and it follows him home. His parents recognize it as Judd's new hunting dog. Judd has a reputation for mistreating his animals, and for this reason Marty wants to keep the dog, who he names Shiloh, but his parents tell him he can't. It belongs to Judd and it's not anybody's business what Judd does with his property. This kind of logic does not persuade Marty.

Shiloh flees his master yet again, and this time Marty keeps him a secret from his family. He builds a makeshift pen in their expansive yard, hidden from view, and keeps Shiloh there. He sneaks food every night, eating less of his own dinner so Shiloh can have something to eat. It takes a toll on Marty to continue lying to his parents, but he decides it's in Shiloh's best interest to keep quiet. Even his two sisters are becoming curious about where he sneaks off to. Judd stops by one night asking about his new hunting dog and he seems to suspect that Marty's hiding something. A showdown between Judd and Marty is inevitable.

Shiloh won the Newbery Award, spawned two sequels, and was made into a movie, a testament to its quality and its popularity. This is a great book for younger readers. They will love it because of the friendship between Marty and Shiloh, and parents will love it because it has good values and poses some excellent questions for kids, and adults, to ponder. In considering his own moral code, Marty realizes that it is wrong to lie and to steal, but he feels a stronger obligation to keep a dog from returning to its abusive owner. What makes this conflict so interesting is that adults would likely consider it much differently than children. Adults, whose moral values are more logical and place a stronger foundation on property, would say Marty should mind his own business. If there was proof of extreme abuse or neglect, the law could step in, but a dog fearful of its owner is not proof. At least not to an adult. To a child like Marty, the proof is in the animal's eyes. He couldn't forgive himself for returning an innocent animal to someone who will not treat it with love.

Surprisingly, Judd, is very well-developed for being the villain of a young adult novel. Many novels or movies aimed at kids have one-dimensional or very silly villains, but Judd is much more human. I believe many of us have known someone like Judd. How Naylor resolves the conflict between Judd and Marty makes sense, and it sends a positive message. In making her villain human, she shows that though there are bad people in the world, things aren't simply black and white. You don't have to fight fire with fire. In fact, it is more effective to stand by your principles and stand up to people like Judd. Shiloh isn't just a novel about a boy who falls in love with a dog; it is about a boy who learns to be brave.


  1. I might have to read this! I don't think I ever did growing up; this sounds good.

    1. Yeah, I only recently read it myself. Thanks for visiting!