Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

VL Random-Lassie Come Home by Eric Knight

First edition cover.

First edition cover.

When VL decided to participate in the celebration of all things published in 1938, I was curious to learn why that particular year was chosen. Bookfox Simon explained on his own blog that it’s really rather random, which answered my question, but one of his commenters mentioned Lassie Come Home, which was a book that loomed large in my childhood and I knew I’d regret not paying tribute to it.
For this was my go-to comfort book when I was in elementary school. My dysfunctional family lived in poverty, led by my mentally ill mother and there was a few years when I was overwhelmed; plagued by nightmares, ill health and panic attacks. Along with armfuls of other animal books, I had Lassie… on almost continual borrowing from the school library. It’s an odd choice for reassurance, since the story involves a boy losing his beloved pet. Not exactly cheerful reading.
If you’ve only seen the old movie, which I hated, you’ve been mislead, as it’s barely connected to the book, focusing on Elizabeth Taylor, rather than Lassie. This dissonance was true for the later TV shows, as well, the only thing in common with the novel is a collie named Lassie. Something very similar happened with Rin Tin Tin . Though I must admit to enjoying the TV shows when young.
As for the novel, it’s set in a Yorkshire village after WW1, Lassie belongs to young Joe, whose father is out of work since the coal mines closed. In desperation, Joe’s father is forced to sell the dog to a wealthy landowner, the Duke. When Lassie keeps escaping from his local kennels, the duke takes her to his estate in Scotland. But incredibly, she manages to escape over the fence there and makes her way back home, hundreds of miles away, over mountains and roiling rivers, becoming starved and injured along the way. When she drags herself to meet Joe at the schoolyard gate, I defy anyone to read that passage without tears. But after she is home, how does the family keep her from being reclaimed by the Duke? The ending is a satisfying relief.
There are moments of genuine suspense in the novel and vivid descriptions of the dangers on Lassie’s perilous journey. And there are flashes of subtle humor, as well as cruelty and compassion through the characters.
The plot is not only about the bond between a pet and their person and the devotion that inspires, but also a sharp portrayal on the desperation of poverty. The comment on class differences shows up repeatedly, in many ways. And for many readers, the principle that some things are beyond price is resounding. And don’t let the “childrens book” label put you off, this is a tale that animal lovers of any age will find riveting.
I still don’t understand why I found such succor in such an emotional story. I do know it was tied to the physical book too, a hardback with blue cover and the Margaret Kirsme illustrations. Her pen & ink drawings on all the chapter headings, plus several full page pictures added to the atmosphere. At one point, my mother got me a cheap paperback copy, which I tried to like, but was missing the heft and artwork of the much loved school library copy. As an adult, I was finally able to buy the “proper” edition on ebay, and when it arrived, something in me felt complete.

First appeared as a story in the Saturday Evening Post magazine in December 1938, later expanded into a novel.

6 comments on “VL Random-Lassie Come Home by Eric Knight

  1. Pingback: VL Random-Lassie Come Residence by Eric Knight | TiaMart Blog

  2. Simon T (StuckinaBook
    April 15, 2016

    Thanks so much for participating – I am ignorant enough to not have even known it was a book first!

  3. Kate
    April 15, 2016

    This is a wonderful review, Jackie: one of your best!

  4. Pingback: The 1938 Club: welcome! – Stuck in a Book

  5. asteraurora
    May 1, 2016

    Jackie, reading your review of Lassie reminded me of how much I loved Enid Blyton’s Shadow the Sheep Dog (published in 1942), which I read multiple times as a child, and derived similar comfort from. I’ve never read Lassie Come Home, but can’t wait to get my hands on a copy now so that I can read it together with my 5 & 7 year old boys!

  6. Jackie
    May 1, 2016

    I think you will all enjoy “Lassie…” And I don’t believe I’ve ever read “Shadow the Sheep Dog”, thanks for telling me about it. I’m going to see if I can find it at the library.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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