Torea Frey

Editor, writer, photographer, observer on the street.

Ninety nine problems but a bitch ain't one

My family is primarily composed of what can only be dubbed crazy dog people. My grandparents have always had dogs (mostly Weimeraners), all my aunts have dogs (a revolving cast of Labradors), and in my youth and adolescence we had a succession of pups: Ruby, Bob, and Dinah. My mother now dotes on Kit, a Walker hound, who is so neurotic that he occasionally becomes too afraid to walk across the kitchen tiles (my mother muses that he once slipped and fell on the slick floor; who can blame his hesitance?).

I've read my share of James Herriott, and whenever a new canine-adjacent book comes out, I can count on being passed along a copy (Marley & Me and The Art of Racing in the Rain both ended up in my possession in this way). But until this year, I had never heard of J. R. Ackerley's My Dog Tulip; catapulted, I suppose, by Paul and Sandra Fierlinger's animated adaptation of the book, though, in the past several months I feel like I haven't been able to escape raves about the slim volume. (Truman Capote: "One of the greatest books ever written by anybody in the world.")

It's a quick read, and the language is light. Expect to read a lot about the mating process. You will learn many, many things about female dogs in heat, including just how glistening their vaginas become and how useful Vaseline is in facilitating the dance of love. None of this was particularly compelling, but then I got to the last chapter.

It is a chapter in which nothing really happens, except that Ackerley and Tulip go for long walks in the woods. And to me, it was so simple and perfect: just a beautiful statement about loneliness, and companionship, and what you do when you love another being very, very much. They come across broken bottles, and Ackerley is concerned about Tulip's paws:

One pounce upon this bottle, with both front feet perhaps ... I pick it up. I pick it all up, every tiny fragment. I seek it out, I root it up, this lurking threat to our security, our happiness, in the heart of the wood; day after day I uncover it and root it up, this disease in the heart of life.

That would be a lovely sentiment to end on. But I can't leave without noting that you, the reader, will become fixated on the number of times the word "bitch" is used. It certainly is correct to use "bitch" to refer to a female dog, but you just don't hear it all that much any more. I started imagining it would be amusing to chronicle all the instances of the word, but searching Google Books takes all the fun out of that: there are 45 uses of "bitch" in My Dog Tulip. (It feels like more.) Some of my favorites:

  1. "What other bitch in your condition has so wonderful a time?" (p. 158)
  2. "This independent, unapproachable, dignified and single-hearted creature, my devoted bitch, becomes the meekest of beggars." (p. 159)
  3. "All bitch-owners must have the same problem ... Tulip is fairly normal and regular, a six- or seven-month bitch, but there are many deviations; some bitches are quite erratic and unpredictable ... No doubt, too, the degree of intensity varies from breed to breed, from bitch to bitch ..." (p. 162)
  4. "Kick her out of the way, the dirty bitch!" (p. 163)
  5. "Perfection of grace. My burning bitch, burning in her beauty and her heat ..." (p. 165)
  6. "How enchanting she is, the coquettish little bitch, putting forth all her bitchiness." (p. 166)
  7. "Matter of fact I did find him a bitch once, but he wouldn't look at her." (p. 178)