Writers usually choose their subjects, but sometimes the reverse happens. Laura Schenone, a nonfiction writer who lives in Montclair, won a James Beard award for her first book, A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove, an eye-opening history of women’s domestic cooking, published in 2003, and widespread praise for her second, The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken, a dive into her Italian family’s culinary customs that led her back to their native Genoa. Given her lifelong love of food and its connection to kin, perhaps those subjects chose her as much as she chose them.
So it’s a surprise to hear her confess, early in her richly researched and affecting new book, The Dogs of Avalon: The Race to Save Animals in Peril (Norton), “I have never been a big animal lover…. In fact, I’d always been afraid of most animals.”
The book, based in part on Schenone’s own experiences, does begin with food, or rather with a 1920s stove she is selling. The woman who buys it finds homes for rescued Irish greyhounds. In Ireland, greyhound racing is big. “The greyhound is the fastest dog on Earth and the second fastest mammal,” the woman explains. “Only the cheetah is faster.”
For the sake of their preteen older son, who dislikes sports but loves books and animals, Schenone and her husband adopt one of the woman’s Irish rescue dogs, Lily, a greyhound mix. She soon learns that racing greyhounds spend much of their lives in cages, are abused, and when they can no longer win are often abandoned or killed. Sympathies aroused, Schenone unleashes her immersive reportorial energies, delving into the history of this spirited, sensitive breed; their connection to royalty and hunting, as well as to indigent Irish travelers; the racing industry; and the people who spare no effort to save the dogs. The enterprise consumes a decade of Schenone’s life.
The book’s real-life heroine is Marion Fitzgibbon, who ran the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Now 77, this wife, mother and cancer survivor still fights to save all kinds of animals “because we want the world to be a better, more compassionate place.” She spent years challenging the powerful dog-racing establishment in Ireland and Europe as well as the centuries-old culture of indifference to the suffering of animals.
Ever underfunded, Fitzgibbon inch-by-inch turns her dream of an animal sanctuary into a bare reality. She routinely sacrifices for the cause. So does her family, sometimes less willingly. As her younger son, James, once told her, “When I want your attention, I’ll bark.”
The protagonists, mostly women, include Johanna Wothke, a German writer and gifted fundraiser with an imperious style, who creates a paradisial Irish sanctuary called Avalon. For Wothke, it is just one of 36 she built. For Fitzgibbon, one of its founding directors, it is a godsend. But sadly, it is not her own.
Schenone visits breeders and veterinarians and even lets you feel a breeder’s thrill as his dog wins the prestigious Irish Derby. But the immersion takes a toll. Schenone, whose family ravioli recipe combined veal and pork, begins to recoil at eating meat. Her husband, an avid fisherman, grows testy. She wrestles with whether saving animals is more important than saving people.
Lily the rescue dog set Schenone on a path to explore a new subject but an old concern, one central to her food books—the ways things that bind us together can also tear us apart.
Schenone will discuss The Dogs of Avalon at Short Stories Bookshop in Madison on Saturday, November 18, from 2-4 pm.Click here to leave a comment