Book Review: Following Atticus

Following a big guy and a little dog
They like Ike: Atticus and Tom on the summit of Mt. Eisenhower. Courtesy photo
Following Atticus: Forty-Eight Peaks, One Little Dog and an Extraordinary Friendship, by Tom Ryan, William Morrow, 2011, 273 pages
William Morrow is going to have a tough time labeling Tom Ryan’s thoroughly engaging memoir.
Following Atticus defies theme and style. The book is at once a simple story about a guy and a dog trying to hike New Hampshire’s biggest mountains, but at the same time a deeply personal transformative journey about self-discovery and what’s important in life.
After a decades long newspaper career in Newburyport, Mass., Ryan decided to pay tribute to a friend who died of cancer by raising money for charity through hikes to the White Mountains with his then puppy Atticus. The result of those hikes is both the unexpected bond that grows between man and dog, as well as Ryan’s dissatisfaction with his current life. Ryan also begins to seek closer bonds with his family, in particular a distant father.
For the sake of full disclosure, two things need to be revealed. First, for the past few years, though I have never met Tom or Atticus, I have been an enthusiastic follower of their blog. Second, and perhaps most crucial, I am not a dog person.
I’ve hiked the White Mountains with friends’ dogs. I’ve invited friends’ dogs to my wedding. I even like some of my friends’ dogs. But though I’m not one of those extremists who believe dogs should not be allowed on trails, the fact is I could go either way and it wouldn’t matter much to me.
And I’ll be the first to roll my eyes when a someone lays on the anthropomorphism about his or her pet so thickly that it makes me think they are spending a little too much time in the woods.
Which is why, though Ryan’s journey of discovery does involve a tiny 5 pound miniature schnauzer, the heart of his story is really more internal. In Ryan’s life, Atticus becomes his conscience, Hobbs to Ryan’s Calvin if you prefer. The book blurs the line between the physical and focuses on the deeper connection that grows between the two creatures.
Does Ryan – middle-aged, overweight, unhappy with his newspaperman career and looking for guidance – allow Atticus to become a tool of escape? Or is Atticus really “different” as Ryan and many others comment in the book, a Little Buddha, whose endurance in the mountains and calm friendship becomes the perfect counter balance that leads Ryan to find a new path in life?
Either way, like any good spiritual journey quest, the pilgrim often finds himself thrust back into his real life not liking what he sees. “Without the mountains we both languished,” Ryan writes.
And together, Ryan and Atticus forge on, an organic relationship that surprises both by where their friendship leads.
Like his blog, Ryan’s writing is crisp and short, the words of a reporter familiar with leaving florid stylings to the delete button. And it works.
During a rare warm day winter climb up Mount Washington, Ryan and Atticus eat lunch a the summit as a team of heavily geared and sweating men arrive at the summit. Ryan writes: “They’d come to challenge the great Washington, with its high winds and frigid temperatures. They’d come to spit in the eye of death and return to their offices the following Monday to brag about it. But instead of death, they came upon something that horrified them even more: a little dog and a fat guy sitting and eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich below the summit sign as if they were having a picnic on Boston Common in the middle of summer.”
Ryan understands well how unlikely a pair of mountaineers the two make. Following Atticus is a book for dog lovers and a book for hikers. But it’s mostly a book about seeking something bigger and more meaningful out of life. Ryan finds that path with a friend who happens to be a canine, but the message of Following Atticus transcends the travels of a fat guy and a little dog. It’s also a message of life without limitations.
Following Atticus will be released on September 20. This review is based on an Advanced Reader’s Edition from the publisher. The final hardcover edition will include photos and be 288 pages. 
Tom and Atticus will kick off a series of book signings around New England starting at White Birch Books in North Conway on Sept. 20. Check their blog for more adventures and signing dates: www.tomandatticus.blogspot.com
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