As a kid, I fell in love with the movie inspired, thirty years later, by Sheila Burnford's novel, The Incredible Journey. That movie was called Homeward Bound and had a cast of talking animals who set out on an incredible one hundred mile journey to return home. The Disney film gave the animals human personalities: Chance the bulldog was goofy and reckless; Shadow the golden retriever was wise and loyal; and Sassy the Himalayan cat was, well, sassy. Burnford's novel deals with the animals much more realistically. They don't talk with one another except by language of instinct. The novel is much more about survival and animal behavior, though companionship is important as well. What Burnford does is show just how amazing our two favorite pets, cats and dogs, are.
The Hunter family, leaving on a nine-month trip to Europe, have left their beloved animals with their trusted friend, John Longridge. These animals, not named until the very end of the tale, are an old bull terrier, a young Labrador, and a Siamese cat (Disney decided to go with more popular and attractive animals for Homeward Bound). Burnford skips the requisite drama of the kids, teary-eyed, leaving their beloved pets behind, and she also does away with any tensions between the three pets. These animals have grown comfortable with their stay at Longridge's place. Except for the young Labrador. The Labrador, rather than being the goofy animal his counterpart is in Homeward Bound, plays the role of the leader. That's because in the animal kingdom it's not the old and frail who are the leaders, but the young and strong. On the day Longridge sets off for a lengthy fishing trip, the Labrador decides it's time to return home, and the other two follow along.
Life isn't so easy in the wild for these animals. This is especially apparent to the bull terrier early on, whose age slows him down. Amazingly, this pack of animals is attuned to the injuries and weaknesses of its members, and the Labrador leads them to a resting place when the older dog runs out of energy. This suggests animals do have a sense of empathy. Survival instinct would say to leave the old dog behind, but companionship tells these animals to behave differently. We also see this when the cat begins hunting in order to feed not just itself, but the weak old bull terrier as well. That the cat would do this for the dog is believable when you consider the number of little dead mice your own cat leaves for you on the front porch.
Burnford describes these animals with fondness. They aren't judgmental. They crave your attention and companionship. They can sense when you are feeling lonely. They can even protect you if need be. They also seem to sense that their family extends beyond just the humans, but one another. We see this in the way the animals feed each other and provide warmth at night. It's the cat whose perhaps the most impressive of the bunch. He scares off a full-grown bear, and at another point he must outwit a much more terrifying hunter than himself. The dogs have their own adventures as well, but excel the most when it comes to begging food off of the humans they come across on their journey.
The novel is a tribute to our beloved pets. They are attuned to their owners so much that they are able to travel one hundred miles through wilderness to return home. In order to survive their journey, they must depend on one another for sustenance and for comfort. These animals are not only loyal to their owners, but to one another as well. While these animals do travel on an incredible journey, Burnford provides just the right details to make it credible - and enjoyable.