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Bel Ria: Dog of War    by Sheila Burnford order for
Bel Ria
by Sheila Burnford
Order:  USA  Can
New York Review, 2006 (2006)
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The events in Bel Ria: Dog of War begin in the summer of 1940, as the Allies flee Western France and it's overrun by the Germans. The book, written by the author of The Incredible Journey, is one of a series of classics reissued in the excellent New York Review Children's Collection.

The story opens on a gypsy caravan creaking along against civilian refugee traffic on the last escape route in France. It's led by a little dog, 'head and tail held high, trotting along with important cheerful intent'. Driving back and forth along the same road, Corporal Sinclair of the Royal Army Service Corps helps the old woman in charge replace a wheel, and in turn she has the dog perform tricks for him. Later, wounded and exhausted, he's sheltered in the caravan, hidden from German soldiers as the dog again puts on a performance to 'an audience who had become children again, spellbound before a dog who danced on a sunlit road to the bidding of the flute.' After Sinclair leaves, the caravan is machine gunned and the old people killed. The dog, carrying a small monkey, finds the soldier and both are evacuated with him.

So begins an odyssey for that small canine, that's as thrilling and as arduous as anything written by Homer. When the first ship is bombed and sunk, Sinclair manages to keep the small creatures with him until they're taken aboard a British destroyer. There, Sinclair raves on about the innocent animals to his medic and extracts a promise from this fellow Scot, Neil MacLean, to look after the dog. Though not an animal lover (MacLean worked with animals in a research laboratory) the dour, rigid medic keeps his word after Sinclair is disembarked, and very slowly (and there's nothing sentimental about it) is changed by his interaction with this exceptionally intelligent, bright-eyed animal, on a ship - alias Noah's Ark - that carries a variety of animal mascots. MacLean names the dog Ria.

When Sinclair writes to ask for the dog to be sent to him, MacLean's world turns bleak but he does what duty demands, leaving Ria ashore at Plymouth. The adventures continue with a total bombardment of the city. Believed dead by his caretaker, Ria saves a rich, cantankerous old woman, Alice Tremorne, who then adopts him, calls him Bel, and - just as MacLean did - mellows under his influence. When MacLean shows up, they end up sharing custody of Bel Ria, and the circle is eventually completed by a visit from Donald Sinclair - the loyal little dog's 'last link in the human chain that reached back to the rolling open roads of the caravan world, the chain that had held him fast from there so long.'

Bel Ria is an amazing story, beautifully told, one that touches the heart as it illuminates both the horrors of war and the power of animals to reach across the species gap and change us for the better. It reminded me very much of a favorite poem by James Elroy Flecker, Tenebris Interlucentem, whose first verse is: 'A linnet who had lost her way / Sang on a blackened bough in Hell, / Till all the ghosts remembered well / The trees, the wind, the golden day.' Bel Ria is a magical must read for any animal lover.

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