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Church of the Dog    by Kaya McLaren order for
Church of the Dog
by Kaya McLaren
Order:  USA  Can
Penguin, 2008 (2008)

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* *   Reviewed by Rheta Van Winkle

Mara O'Shaunnessey is six feet tall, with bright red hair, an artist who teaches art to children to support herself. She has just broken up with her fiancÚ, mainly because he charged her $10 to take her to the emergency room after she had a severe allergic reaction. His careful division of their finances had never bothered her that much before, but she knows that she wouldn't charge anyone to take them to the emergency room, much less someone you plan to marry. She finds another teaching job in a public school in a small community in Oregon and a place to stay in the empty hired hand quarters of Earl and Edith McRae, as well as a part time job helping Earl with some of the constant work that has to be done on his ranch.

After Earl tells Mara that she can fix up her place any way she wants, she paints a mural of a giant dog on the side of the building. Because of this, the McRaes start to call her place the church of the dog. Mara settles in to teaching and helping Earl, who at 79 needs help. She thinks that it's a bit odd to be helping a beef rancher since she is a vegetarian. Earl is glad of her help. He has a grandson, Daniel, but he has gone to Alaska to work in the fishing industry, and there are no more relatives to help on the ranch. Also, Earl has found a lump on his neck and wonders if he has much time left. He's happy to have Mara there for his wife's sake, just in case something happens.

This is a magical story. Mara has some unusual talents, such as having lucid dreams where she talks to her grandmother. Earl, Edith, and Daniel are still mourning the death of Sam McRae and his wife, who were the only son and daughter-in-law of the old couple and Daniel's parents. As Mara becomes better acquainted with the family, she helps them out in more ways than just by fixing fences. She also becomes totally involved with her students, particularly the ones in high school.

There's a lot of growth and change for everyone in this short novel. Mara seems filled with so much love for everyone and everything that just by being there she effects change, but she does take action now and then, too. Dog lovers and animal lovers will particularly like this delightful book. At one point Mara is called on to help a heifer that's having difficulty giving birth. The details of what's required are interesting and funny as Mara plunges her arm into the cow to try to turn the calf.

The writing is beautiful, the characters are fully drawn and believable, and there's just enough depiction of nature to satisfy. One finishes this book wishing to move to this community, where there are good neighbors and friends and everybody knows your name.

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