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Alfred Ollivant's Bob, Son of Battle: The Last Gray Dog of Kenmuir

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Bob, Son of Battle, is a sheepdog so canny and careful of his flock, so deeply devoted to his master, James Moore, and so admired for his poise and wisdom by the residents of a small village in the rugged mountains of England’s North Country, that young though he is, he is already known as Owd Bob. In a recent contest, Bob has proved himself a matchless sheepdog, and if he wins the trophy two more times, he’ll be seen as equal to the legendary sheepdogs of yore. 

But Bob ...

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Alfred Ollivant's Bob, Son of Battle: The Last Gray Dog of Kenmuir

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Bob, Son of Battle, is a sheepdog so canny and careful of his flock, so deeply devoted to his master, James Moore, and so admired for his poise and wisdom by the residents of a small village in the rugged mountains of England’s North Country, that young though he is, he is already known as Owd Bob. In a recent contest, Bob has proved himself a matchless sheepdog, and if he wins the trophy two more times, he’ll be seen as equal to the legendary sheepdogs of yore. 

But Bob has a real rival: Red Wull, with his docked tail and bristling yellow fur, a ferocious creature, just like his diminutive master, Adam McAdam, a lonely Scot, estranged not only from his English neighbors but from his son, David. McAdam just can’t stop belittling this strapping young man, all the more so since David began courting Moore’s beautiful daughter Maggie. But what McAdam really wants is for his beloved Wullie to wrest the prize from Bob once and for all. 

The story takes a darker turn when a troubling new threat to the local flocks emerges. A dog has gone rogue, sneaking out at night to feast on the flesh and blood of the sheep he is bound to protect. Again and again, new sheep fall prey to this relentless predator; again and again, he slips away undetected. This master hunter can only be among the boldest and sharpest of dogs . . .

Bob, Son of Battle has long been a beloved classic of children’s literature both in America and in England. Here the celebrated author and translator Lydia Davis, who first read and loved this exciting story as a child, has rendered the challenging idioms of the original into fluent and graceful English of our day, making this tale of rival dogs and rival families and the shadowy terrain between Good and Bad accessible and appealing to readers of all ages.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A classic tale skillfully revived for a new generation.” —The Wall Street Journal

“Probably the greatest dog story ever written, and one you will love as long as you live.” —Life 

“The greatest dog story I ever read: it is like Hamlet with Hamlet left out, all the more noticeable because the Great Dane is included.” —William Lyon Phelps

From the Publisher
“Probably the greatest dog story ever written, and one you will love as long as you live.” —Life
“The greatest dog story I ever read: it is like Hamlet with Hamlet left out, all the more noticeable because the Great Dane is included.” —William Lyon Phelps
Kirkus Reviews
Over 100 years after his birth in print, Bob, Son of Battle isseekinga new audience. He deserves one.Ollivant’s late-19th-century tale—invariably described as a children’s “classic”—tells of two sheepherding dogs at the top of their craft, the masters of these dogs and the hatred and jealousy of one for the other, and the quest for the coveted Shepherds’ Trophy—not once but thrice.It is also a boy’s coming-of-age story, a love story and a mystery of the Black Killer (of sheep). Ollivantis a master storyteller,and he plays a veritable fandango on the heartstrings when the identityof thekiller is disclosed.Popular in its day, the work is now virtually unknown. Davis’ intention with her adaptation is to bring this worthy tale to new generations of readers. Her major change is the transposition into modern English of Ollivant’s extensive use of the Cumbrian dialect. Other unfamiliar English and Scottish words and expressions are also modernized. Is this effort successful? Indeed, yes. The power and sweep of the original remain, and those changes made are thoughtfully and sensitively executed. Is something lost in translation? Yes, that too. Ollivant’s use of dialect had beautifully pinned the story to its time and place. Nevertheless, for the modern reader, this new version is a winner.Welcome back, Owd (Old) Bob! (Historical fiction. 10-14)
Children's Literature - M.H.B. Hughes
Davis has modernized the archaic country British jargon of Davis’s original story for a new version in “The New York Review Children’s Collection” series. After reading the 1898 original novel when she was a child, Davis never forgot her early impressions of the unfortunate characters it portrays, nor her feeling that they could have been saved. A full read indicates that she might have served her cause better with more abridgment of the three hundred pages. The style of the original book makes it difficult to recognize as a modern classic, sounding overblown and overemotional. Another question is whether today’s young readers have the determination to reach the meaty part of the book. The tale could lose the first hundred pages to get to the core mystery after following the lives of feuding English shepherds. The protagonist is the boy David, who grows up to become enamored of a neighboring farmer’s daughter, but the adolescent has unconsciously embodied the negative attitude of his father. The repetitive and typecast descriptions of the noble master, Kenmuir Farm, and the drunken child-abuser, The Grange, make the reader cringe even before reading the gilt-embroidered descriptions of the two dogs involved. The references to Kenmuir Farm as “The Master” conjure the venerable Albert Payson Terhune in his overuse of the same designation in his collie dog books from the post WWI era. Bob sparks considerably when a mystery beast slaughters sheep all over the county, with no sign of the perpetrator’s identity. Subordinate characters gossip, chat, and back up their favorites in the battles, adding fuel to the emotional fires. For those with an interest in working collie trials, this book may be enjoyable because of the several competitions described. Author Ollivant was an army officer crippled by a riding accident and Bob was his first novel. Illustrator Kirmse produced prolific dog artworks in the early twentieth century. Davis won the 2013 Mann Booker prize for her book of short stories Can’t and Won’t. Known as a master of the short story, she has produced sensitive translations of French works. Although Davis qualifies as a great wordsmith, she was reluctant to change the core of the original book. Reviewer: M.H.B. Hughes; Ages 8 to 12.
The Barnes & Noble Review

I'm guessing the best-known sheepdog of recent years is really a pig. The movie Babe, based on the children's book The Sheep- Pig (1983) by Dick King-Smith, is a sweet yarn about a pig who wants to herd sheep like his adoptive Border Collie parents. Because he's not a Border Collie — who are, as the sheep well know, descended from wolves — he herds sheep in his own distinctive way: mild, polite, and respectful. There's a dreadful moment when the protective pig, after fighting off a pack of feral dogs who have been terrorizing his flock, is caught red-snouted by the farmer. The farmer suspects him of being a sheep killer and is about to shoot him — but Babe's innocence is proved in the nick of time. Babe survives to become the unorthodox champion at the sheepdog trials. Filmed in a glorious glow of Australian light, it is the dog story for our times: you can become, it insists, whoever you want, and whatever differences from the norm you have are all good, probably even better.

But the narrative DNA of Babe comes from a source that is quite different: a stark, unlovely, primal book from 1898 in which nature is not malleable but determining. Alfred Ollivant's Bob, Son of Battle (which some of us grew up knowing under its British title, Owd Bob, The Grey Dog of Kenmuir) pits two sheepdogs and their masters against each other in a bleakly stunning landscape of Cumberland dales that "includes moors and ravines, swift streams and lakes; with a little village standing far away in one spot and a sheep-farm alone up on a hilltop in another." Families battle loneliness, early death, fatal snows, and, with increasing desperation, a rogue sheep-killing dog.

In this harsh world, one shepherd and his dog, Adam McAdam and Red Wull, conquer natural challenges by embracing that harshness, but they are feared and isolated by the community. The other human-dog pair, James Moore and Owd Bob, work with sober restraint; the community embraces them as their highest exemplum.

The people, the land, and the animals are all linked together, but within this chain there are multiple hierarchies. The family Bible of the Moores of Kenmuir, for example, contains the genealogy of the Moores pasted in the back and the pedigree of the dogs slipped in the front. The Moores of Kenmuir are landowners who have been rooted in this one landscape so long that their very name now marks it. McAdam is a tenant shepherd who has traveled down from Scotland. (Is it too fanciful of me to hear an echo of the artificial road surface macadam in his name? It was invented in 1809 by his fellow Scot John Loudon McAdam.) McAdam is a man out of place:

The little Scotsman with the mean smile had lived at the grange for many years; yet he had never grown used to the land of the English. With his shrunken little body and weak legs, surrounded by the sturdy, straight-limbed sons of the hill country, he looked like some brown, wrinkled leaf holding its place in a galaxy of green. And just as he was different from them in his body, he was also different in his nature.
The Moores share a family trait of being slow in learning to speak and laconic when they do. Adam McAdam is also different from the stolid Dalesmen in having a sense of humor, however sardonic, and in being quick and cutting with his tongue — traits that, however uncharitable in real life, imbue this story with energy and suspense.

In a world so constrained by nature and heredity, the annual sheepdog trial determines more than technical success; it puts one's very being-in-the-world on display in the relationship of man and dog to sheep and landscape. The values of the world of the sheepdog trial have nothing to do with transcending one's nature; rather the trial rewards understanding and perfecting one's nature to be most fully oneself with others. And the worst fault one can commit is in betraying that nature.

I called Bob, Son of Battle an unlovely book a few paragraphs ago, and so it is, but that does not mean there aren't very many people who love it. One of them is Lydia Davis, who read it when she was a little girl: "I felt as though I had lived through it myself." Just like the arduous landscape, Ollivant crafted his book to reflect the arduous world it depicts. As he wrote, "The talk of the men of the land is of wethers and gimmers, of tuphoggs, ewe tegs in wool, and other things which are but fearsome names to you and me." The book combines Border and Scots dialect with Victorian flights. Even the names of dogs might need translating: Owd Bob is Old Bob, and Red Wull is Red Will. The adult Davis, now a celebrated fiction writer and translator, wanted to ensure that the powerful experience of reading this book would still be accessible to children today. As she writes in her afterword — pitched at the children who might be receiving this handsome New York Review Classics edition as a present — she has tried to translate the "hard words and puzzling expressions" "just enough so that almost everything could be understood without any problem, and there would be nothing to get in the way of the story."

Like Davis, I fell under the spell of this book when I was a child, and I remember very well the feeling of moving through Ollivant's thorny sentences — a dark pleasure of reading tentatively, picking my way from uncertainty to some knowledge, trusting both in the narrator's art and my own stamina, in the belief that there would be another opening through a thicket. Among other things, such experiences of being carried by a current of narrative beyond one's skill and strength in childhood prove the truth of T. S. Eliot's criterion for great poetry — it is "communicated before it is understood."

Thus I met this new version with some dismay. But as I read Davis and reread Ollivant, I have come to appreciate her subtle rearrangements and small decisions, which, even if I wouldn't have made all of them, scrape away some taxing overgrowth without smoothing the rough beauty of the whole. It is a wonderful achievement, and I already have children in mind who'll get it as a present, lucky children who will be led to think through thorny issues of fate and choice, to judge the values by which our natures are tested, and to feel the sometimes conflicting forces of justice and mercy, condemnation and respect.

Alexandra Mullen left a life as an academic in Victorian literature to return to her roots as a general reader. She now writes for The Hudson Review (where she is also an Advisory Editor), The New Criterion, and The Wall Street Journal.

Reviewer: Alexandra Mullen

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781590177297
  • Publisher: New York Review Books
  • Publication date: 8/19/2014
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 169,469
  • Age range: 8 - 12 Years
  • Product dimensions: 8.60 (w) x 5.70 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Alfred Ollivant (1874–1927) was born in Old Charlton, Kent, the son of a colonel in the Royal Horse Artillery. Shortly after he graduated from the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, intending to pursue a career in the army, he was thrown from his horse and seriously injured. While beginning his recuperation from the accident (he was to remain under his doctors’ care for the next fourteen years), he wrote Owd Bob: The Grey Dog of Kenmuir (known in the United States as Bob, Son of Battle), which was a best seller both in the United Kingdom and the United States when it came out in 1898. Ollivant would go on to publish fourteen more novels, as well as various occasional essays, poems, and other works, including, during the First World War, a series of articles describing wartime life in England for an American audience.

Marguerite Kirmse (1885–1954) was born in Bournesmouth, England. She emigrated to the United States as an accomplished harpist in order to continue her musical education, but instead embarked on a highly successful career as an illustrator. She is best known for her drawings of dogs, including those in Lassie, Come-Home by Eric Knight.

Lydia Davis is the author of seven collections of stories, including Break It Down, Samuel Johnson Is Indignant, and, most recently, Can’t and Won’t, as well as one novel, The End of the Story. Her Collected Stories were published as a single volume in 2009, and in 2013 she was awarded an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award of Merit Medal for the Short Story, as well as the Man Booker International Prize. She is also the translator of many books from the French, most notably Proust’s Swann’s Way and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary

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Customer Reviews

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  • Posted November 4, 2014

    This amazing story is one not to be missed.  First published in

    This amazing story is one not to be missed.  First published in 1898 it went on to become a classic in both the UK and the US.  It is a story of good and evil and how good prevails.  Two sheepdogs, totally different in looks, temperament, and purpose, vie for the Shepherd's trophy admids an ongoing feud from their owners where jealousy, hatred and covetous reign.  

    The storyteller extraordinare weaves a love-story, a heart-breaking and tragic relational story between a father and son, and a mysterious sub-plot to uncover the identity of the Black Killer who roams around at night viciously killing off the local sheep. The magnificent twists and turns will have you up late at night trying to figure out who the culprit is and why he is so elusive and cannot be apprehended.  You are kept in suspense right up until the end as Ollivant shows his brilliance as a master storyteller over and over again throughout, luring you on deeper into the plot to find out the answers you are seeking.

    Thanks to Lydia Davis and the New York Review Children's Collection for re-introducing this book into the public domain once again for future generations to enjoy.  I myself had not read the book as child (or adult) so I was very fortunate to have had a chance to read one of the best books that I have read in a long, long time.  I highly recommend it.  

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