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This past week I rediscovered Lassie Come-Home by Eric Knight. In doing so, I realized it held even more depth to it than my childhood reading of it had revealed. For example, this beloved classic dog story is set in a different time and place than those with whom I am familiar. Even the main character of Lassie is a more complex dog than I remembered, in that she at times like humans wavers between fear and love.

Lassie Come-Home was first published in 1938. At that time, just like today, there was a disparity between the poor and the wealthy. Back then, however, those struck by poverty might consider selling their canine companions to dealers, kennel owners, or rich men. And so Knight writes in his fictional story, “That way many fine dogs had gone from homes in Greenall Bridge. But not Lassie!” The day came however that even the Carraclough family had been beaten so low that the parents felt there was no other choice. Imagine growing up, every day being met faithfully after school or work by your dog, and then one day she is not there. Such is what happened to Joe. When he inquired of his parents, they told that Lassie had been sold and would not ever be theirs again. Needless to say, Joe was devastated and Lassie was confused.

Eric Knight was born in England. Although he later moved to the United States, his homeland is believed to have served as the setting for Lassie Come-Home. In the early chapters of Lassie Come-Home, Lassie escapes the kennels to which she has been sold and devotedly returns to Joe. She doesn’t understand that because the family has sold her, they will be obligated to return her. The third time this happens, Joe doesn’t take her home but instead hides out with her on the moors, which Knight describes as: “as island of outcropping rocks, great sharp-edged blocks that looked much as in some strange long ago a giant child had begun to pile up building block towers”. Eventually, the new owner relocates Lassie to Scotland, where he hopes to put an end to her escapes. For a time it does, but one day on a walk Lassie breaks from her collar and begins the long journey across Scotland to England and back home again to Joe. She encounters many adventures and Knight treats readers to descriptive passages of the landscape.

Of course, at the heart of Lassie Come-Home is the bond which exists between boy and dog. Although Lassie had to traverse mountains, swim rivers, and resist attacks, she persevered. One instinct kept her going, despite injuries and fevers, and that was the one to meet Joe at school at 4:00. Along the way, Lassie sadly discovered that not all men are equal in their treatment of animals. Boys threw rocks at her. Men shot their guns at her. Others hurled sticks or came with nets to imprison her. Given how daring Lassie acts in the television series, you might not recall this detail but in time, Lassie came to fear those men whom she didn’t know. At a pivotal time, when a peddler who had befriended her came under assault, Lassie at first runs away. As she heads homeward, Lassie feels conflicted. Fear would tell her to just keep going, going, going…. Love would require her to return and defend the peddler, even if meant even more harm to herself.

If it’s been awhile since you last read Lassie Come-Home, this holiday season would make an excellent time to pick up a copy again. And if you have yet to read the tale which inspired such adoration for the breed of collies, what are you waiting for?

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

Although Eric Knight was the author of many well-written books, he will always best be remembered for the classic tale of a boy and his dog: Lassie Come-Home. I’ll review this beloved story tomorrow. Save the date: December 12!

PERSONAL BACKGROUND

5.1.2Born 1897 in England, Eric Knight was the third of four sons born to Frederic Harrison and Marion Knight, both Quakers. According to Wikipedia, Knight’s father was a rich diamond merchant who, when Eric was two years old, was killed during the Boer War. His mother then moved to St. Petersburg, Russia, to work as a governess for the imperial family. Knight was raised by an aunt and uncle and attended school part-time as a child. His mother later settled in America, where Knight joined her at the age of fifteen. There, he graduated from the Cambridge School of Latin in Massachusetts and also pursued art at the New York National Academy of design. Two of his brothers died in 1919, on the same day that they enlisted in the National Guard.

Chelsea-Collies reports that Knight’s varied career included service in the Canadian Army during World War I, along with spells as a newspaper reporter, university lecturer, and Hollywood screenwriter. His first love was newspaper work and over the years he worked for several. He started as a copy boy and worked his way up to writing feature articles for the Syndicate Bureau. He was also a respected film critic for the Philadelphia Public Ledger. For a short time, Knight even dabbled in film writing in Hollywood, where he became a favorite of the legendary filmmaker, Frank Capra.

Married twice, Knight had three daughters. His second marriage was to Jere Brylawski in 1932 with whom he settled on a farm in Pennsylvania. However, shortly thereafter, the couple gave up both their farm and their dogs to move to Hollywood so that Eric could pursue a film writing career. Knight took American citizenship in 1942 shortly before his death at the age of forty-five. As observed by Chelsea-Collies, there’s no telling what else Knight might have accomplished if his life had been longer.

WRITING BACKGROUND

When the couple moved to Hollywood, Knight purchased a female collie puppy that was to be a Christmas gift to his wife. However, Chelsea-Collies notes that it quickly became apparent that the puppy Toots was to be his dog alone. Knight spent every spare moment training her and was continually amazed by her eagerness and quickness to learn. While traveling on book tours Knight delighted in showing Toots off and her repertoire of tricks became famous. The two of them became inseparable. When Knight was away, Toots would sit patiently by the stone wall in the front of their house, awaiting her master’s return. Toots is considered the main inspiration behind Knight’s most enduring novel: Lassie Come-Home.

The Lassie Family Website notes further came while on a trip to Knight’s English homeland during the Great Depression. The entire country was enduring hard times, forcing many people to sell their belongings, including beloved dogs. After his return home, Knight and his wife relocated to New York. It was here that he began to write Lassie Come-Home. Much of the story is felt to have been drawn from his own childhood memories in England. This lush countryside was the setting for Lassie’s adventures. Knight also grew up in the mill towns where stories of “come-home” dogs were common.

EricandLassieonsetWebThe short story first appeared in the December 17, 1938 issue of the Saturday Evening Post. It was so popular that the John C. Winston Publishing Company picked up publication rights. The full-length novel has been published in over 25 languages and remained continuously in print.

Unfortunately, Knight did not live long enough to witness the legend he created. The novel was filmed by MGM in 1943 as Lassie Come-Home with Roddy McDowall in the role of Joe Carraclough and canine actor Pal in the role of Lassie. While Knight visited the movie set, where he met the original Lassie, he never saw the finished product. In 1943, as part of World War II, he was killed in action while on board a transport plane that crashed in the jungles of Dutch Guiana.

The movie went onto inspire seven other movies, a radio show, a long running television show, countless books and artifacts, and a great love for this dog called Lassie. Indeed, thanks to Knight, collies and the character “Lassie” will forever be linked. In 1994, proof of Lassie’s positive breed influence came when Eric Knight was admitted to the Collie Club of America Quarter Century Club Hall of Fame!


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