Friday, June 4, 2010


FOR ALL THE FANFARE that met William Maxwell's first children's book The Heavenly Tenants, his second children's book Mrs. Donald's Dog Bun and His Home Away from Home (1995) appears to have made no mark at all. None of the major newspapers reviewed it. His own New Yorker did not review it. The first biography of Maxwell, William Maxwell: A Literary Life by Barbara A. Burkhardt does not mention it once.

The book is illustrated by the great James Stevenson, who has contributed over two thousand cartoons to The New Yorker and written and/or illustrated over one hundred books for children. (I particularly like Could Be Worse.) But Stevenson maintains a reclusive shroud around his personal life, and so, no light can be shed on Mrs. Donald's Dog Bun through that channel.

The only personal tidbit available is the dedication: "For Bun's faithful friend E.G.M., without whom this book would be nowhere." "E.G.M." is Emily Gilman Maxwell, Maxwell's wife of fifty-five years. (They were so committed to each other that they died of natural causes within a week of one another.) For many years, Maxwell wrote a series of fairy tales, which he called "improvisations," for his wife, stories that he would tell her before they went to sleep at night. But Mrs. Donald's Dog Bun is not a once-upon-a-time story. Rather, it's a humorous, cozy story about a dog who is not quite a dog, but is definitely not a person.

"THE DOG THAT BELONGED to Dr. and Mrs. Donald was named Bun, and he was partly Boston bull, partly sheepdog, and partly Labrador retriever, so he was very sensitive to remarks about his appearance." Bun lives in a nice house where "the bones that came from their table were worth waiting for," but he is forced to sleep on an old piece of carpeting in a much-traveled hallway. Bun, for all of his comforts, dreams of one day having a house all his own.

And then, the movers arrive. The Donalds are moving--not far away--but to a "new house [that] was larger and more comfortable than the old one."

More importantly, there's a little house out back "made of two upright piano boxes nailed together." It had been a child's playhouse, but Bun immediately sees its potential. He sets out to restore the house. He repairs the roof, paints the shutters and the trim and the floor and the walls, and buries some bones in the yard "just to make the place seem lived in."

No sooner has he finished then the local dogs come by to see the new neighbor and examine his luxurious doghouse. A cocker spaniel and an Airedale, a poodle and an Irish terrier, and those dogs' friends and friends of those dogs' friends.

"That made lots of dogs, and there was something about the Irish terrier that the Airedale just couldn't stand, and the Irish terrier felt the same way about the Airedale, and the first thing Bun knew there was a dogfight going on right there in his own front yard."

Mrs. Donald douses the combatants, and the dogs agree to a truce. As long as they agree to be peaceful they are welcome at Bun's house. And they take great advantage of Bun's welcome.

Soon Bun is forced out of his own home. Someone else sits in his favorite chair. There's no room for him inside when the weather is nasty. Bun's home away from home just isn't that homelike. So...

He padlocks the house, puts out a sign that reads "to let" and moves back in with the Donalds. "'Why, Bun!' [Mrs. Donald] exclaimed. 'This is a surprise...Yes, yes, of course, and we've missed you too.'" Bun trots to the back hall and finds his old familiar piece of worn out rug, and lays down content.

MRS. DONALD'S DOG BUN AND HIS HOME AWAY FROM HOME does not make clear why the primary downside of having your own home is that other people come and live in it. (After all, couldn't Bun just padlock the door for the doghouse from the inside, and have everything he wants?) But Maxwell's quiet humor matched with Stevenson's dogs provides a wry chuckle for dog lovers.

Still, in many ways, one of James Stevenson's cartoons for The New Yorker, which predates Mrs. Donald's Dog by only a few years, sums up Bun's problem--perhaps all dog's problems-- in a more succinct fashion.

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