Dogland is a valentine to Will Shetterly’s ‘50s childhood in north-central Florida. His story is turgid with nostalgia, yet aware of darker forces outside the four-year-old narrator’s vision. The charming recreation of the Halcyon days of the writer’s youth are engaging, but not absorbing enough to sustain over 400 pages of narrative.
The Nix family consists of parents Luke and Susan, and the three kids: Chris, the eldest and the narrator (four at the opening of the novel), Little Bit, and Digger. Peripatetic seemingly by nature, the family decides to settle down in Latchahee County, an area in Florida that their religious neighbor, Mr. Drake, thinks is the site of the Garden of Eden.
The Nixes find Florida strange. "In Florida, nature has not been taught its place. Plants and animals do not know the forms they’re permitted up north, so you find thick gray swatches of Spanish moss in the trees, and snapping turtles with heads shaped like those of eagles, and deep carpets of saw grass growing along the bottoms of the rivers, and walls of green palmetto spears making dens in the countryside for rattlesnakes and wild pigs."
The Nixes buy a run-down motel along the highway, prior to the construction of the Interstate, where they industriously found Dogland, a roadside tourist attraction near the town of Dickison that eventually features over 100 breeds of dogs. Using the local help—black workmen, racist crackers, teenage mothers, and a host of transients—Dogland emerges, literally, from the ashes of the burned motel buildings to become a thriving concern.
We follow the Nix family over the next several years, through childhood illnesses and accidents, financial setbacks, neighborhood crises, and a string of tourist visitors who range from beatniks to Haitians to Russians. We follow the vicissitudes of the local doctor, banker, and motel owner as their lives intertwine with the lives of the Nixes.
Race and its problems during the Fifties in Florida run like an ugly scar through this book. Father Luke is a classic liberal, willing not only to employ blacks, but serve them in his restaurant. This attitude gets him repeatedly, and sometimes violently, in trouble with the local white population. The tension climaxes in an angry incident over an interracial romance. Throughout the book, the Nix family represents the emerging social conscience of the South, while those around them demonstrate the viciousness of the backward, indigenous population.
The weaknesses of this novel are several. Primarily, as a book seen through the eyes of a young child, there is a tension between the innocently observed events and the ugliness of the reality the child unknowingly encounters. While one is promised both brimstone and treacle by the narrative, early on the honey douses the fire.
The author is interested in conveying the fascination of Florida past, but does so woodenly, through let’s-find-out conversations where characters bear the burden of communicating blocks of (undeniably interesting) facts the author has discovered. In addition, lengthy exchanges about race or the proper functioning of democracy drone on, and are ultimately are sweetly laid to rest as being best understood through the lenses of Enlightened Liberal ideology.
For aging Boomer Floridians, this novel will likely evoke a warm glow of remembrance for how things used to be. For the rest of us, Dogland is too slow moving and syrupy for its own good.