- - Thursday, April 26, 2018



By Alexander McCall Smith

Pantheon, $25.95, 256 pages


By Muriel Dobbin

There are few authors who can write a book featuring a dog called Peter Woodhouse who is also invested with the title U.S. Air Force Dog First Class.

Alexander McCall Smith is one of those authors, which should come as no surprise to those who have happily read their way through his prolific output ranging from a ladies’ detective agency in Botswana to a supercilious philanthropist in Edinburgh and a forlorn little boy called Bertie.

His latest venture into the kind of philosophy Mr. McCall Smith engages in stretches across generations and nations at war, yet he retains his remarkable capacity for advocating forgiveness in the most unlikely circumstances..

His primary focus this time around is on Britain in the closing stages of World War II. It is the story of Val, the English land girl working on a farm with kindly Archie, and making her home with her aunt Anne half an hour’s drive away. Nearby there is an new American air force base to which Val drives a load of the heavily rationed fresh eggs on her bicycle.

Enter Mike, a charming American pilot flying reconnaissance planes who falls in love with the pretty English girl. But there is more. On a neighboring farm there is Ted Butters who is brutal to his border collies. Willy, another farm worker who is what used to be called “not quite there” intellectually, protects the dogs and steals one of them to bring to the sympathetic Val.

Enter the dog, which is adopted by the American airmen and named Peter Woodhouse, and nobody quite knows why. But the Americans call him “Woody,” and he has gone to dog heaven by comparison with his previous abused existence. Butters fights to get the dog back, but it is not only safe with the Americans, they smuggle it aboard planes flying to Europe to the amusement and with the approval of their commending officer. Woody loves flying and loves the Americans,

However, the slight plot moves on to the love affair of Val and Mike and Mike’s capture when his plane crashes into Holland. Val is left heartbroken and pregnant. And Woody is in the crashed plane with Mike.

It is characteristic McCall Smith that Mike and Woody encounter a good German corporal called Ubi who refuses to shoot the dog, and he takes them under his wing, quite literally.

At the end of the war Mike is rescued with Woody, and Ubi makes his sad way back to a battered Germany and the ruins in which it is left by the conquerors, especially the Russians. Ubi finds shelter and a friend in an almost abandoned inn because he cannot reach what was once his home in Berlin.

However, the author moves into tragedy and how to deal with it, with the death in the Berlin airlift of Mike, leaving Val a widow. Woody, however, has been brought back to England by the sympathetic Americans and finds himself again being attacked by the awful Ted Butters whom he attacks, understandably. Butters is bought off by Archie and Woody retires to his beloved farm to spend a peaceful old age.

It is classic McCall Smith that Val not only stays in England with her little son but develops a friendship with the wife of Ubi, the man who saved the lives of Mike and Woody.

It is a story of forgiveness, and that is really what Alexander McCall Smith is about.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun

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