The Leanin' Dog

The Leanin' Dog

4.6 5
by K. A. Nuzum

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More than anything, Dessa Dean needed a friend. A friend with whom she could share her heart. Then there came a scratchin’ at the door and Dessa Dean’s life was forever changed. This is the story of a girl, a dog, and the friendship that saves them both.


More than anything, Dessa Dean needed a friend. A friend with whom she could share her heart. Then there came a scratchin’ at the door and Dessa Dean’s life was forever changed. This is the story of a girl, a dog, and the friendship that saves them both.

Editorial Reviews

VOYA - Walter Hogan
Nuzum's second novel, following A Small White Scar (Joanna Cotler Books/HarperCollins, 2006), is tightly focused on two human characters: eleven-year-old Dessa Dean and her father. Dessa has been traumatized after barely surviving the mountain snowstorm that killed her mother. Now afraid to leave the cabin because of her frostbitten ears-and worse, her terrible memories of nearly freezing to death beside her mother-Dessa spends long, lonely days indoors while her father ekes out a hunting and trapping subsistence. Along comes a large, hungry dog who appreciates Dessa's handouts but fears being trapped in the small cabin. Despite the winter cold, Dessa leaves the door open, so the wary dog can come and go as she pleases. With the cabin so welcoming and the smells of Dessa's Christmas dinner wafting through the clear mountain air, a fourth, very large character breaks her hibernation and lumbers into the cabin, giving the dog a chance to defend her new home and Dessa a reason to finally go outdoors again. Dessa's sweet, simple narration, inflected with a bit of backwoods dialect, will draw preteen readers to this heartwarming tale of friendship between a dog who does not want to be confined and a girl who is afraid to leave her self-imposed confinement. The isolated setting, deep snow, and small cast of thoughtful, quiet characters combine to build a subdued atmosphere that is finally joyfully broken by the happy barks of "The Leanin' Dog," as Dessa names her new friend. Reviewer: Walter Hogan
School Library Journal

Gr 4-7

Dessa Dean, 11, was a powerless witness as her diabetic mother froze to death when they were caught in an early-winter storm. Since then, she and her father have gone through the motions of normalcy, with him going out daily to check the traps while she stays behind to do the schoolwork he prepares and to fix their meager dinner. But things are not normal: Dessa Dean frequently relives the horror of her mother's death, and she is unable to make herself venture beyond the steps of their isolated Colorado cabin. The week before Christmas, though, an injured dog comes sniffing around. Dessa Dean's initial attempts to befriend it fail: the jittery animal has apparently been abused and keeps her distance. Repeated efforts pay off, but even when the dog allows Dessa Dean to approach her, she remains on edge around the girl's father. As another storm nears, he is having no success with his hunting forays and has little patience for a dog that will only stay inside when the door is open to the frigid air. Dessa Dean is caught between her growing feelings for the animal and her father's concern over their basic survival. This story of an agoraphobic girl and a claustrophobic dog and how they slowly move one another toward hope could have been maudlin, but Nuzum's pacing and spare, poetic narrative create something quite wonderful. The novel will draw comparisons to Kate DiCamillo's Because of Winn-Dixie (Candlewick, 2000), but it is certainly not a Winn-Dixie wannabe. This is a beautiful story in which friendship and the power of being needed trump despair.-Kim Dare, Fairfax County Public Schools, VA

Kirkus Reviews

A motherless girl, a stray dog and a heart-tugging plot—sound familiar? Not so fast—Nuzum's talent shines through to create an original take on a potentially predictable story line. Eleven-year-old Dessa Dean's mother has died in horrible circumstances: She froze to death in a snowstorm with her daughter by her side. Tormented by nightmares and suffering severe agoraphobia, Dessa lives with her taciturn father in a rustic mountain cabin. Afraid she's going "daft," Dessa tries desperately to resume her everyday life but can't force herself off the cabin's front porch. The arrival of the dog changes everything—but not immediately and not without considerable hardship. Nuzum's plot flows smoothly through Dessa's compelling and direct colloquial narrative. Characters are complex, and details of animal behavior ring true. Although the physical setting is clearly drawn, the geographic location and time are unspecified, leaving readers to wonder just a little at Dessa's primitive existence. But they'll root for her nonetheless and be pleased when she finds the strength to overcome her fears. Gritty and engaging. (Fiction. 9-12)

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.10(w) x 7.50(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range:
8 - 12 Years

Read an Excerpt

The Leanin' Dog

Chapter One

Just Like I Used To

I shoved my braids up into my woolen cap, pulled the itchy thing farther down over my ears, and crossed to the cabin window. I touched my nose to the small square of cold glass.

The snow had started up again; it fell thick and heavy like the velvet curtain at the theatre way down in town. I filled my eyes with the sight of it and then scrunched them shut and stretched my arms wide to both sides. Up and down real slow I moved them, like I used to, lying in the deep snow, pushing out perfect angel wings, feeling the cold and the wet seep through the backside of my britches and coat, feeling the snow spill down my neck. I remembered.

My eyes roved over the snow-covered ground. Reading the morning paper was what Daddy called it. I figured four new inches had fallen on top of the old three feet. I saw a coyote had trotted by and stopped to sniff at the base of the big pine that stood at the edge of the front porch. He'd come sometime during the night; his prints looked crusty at their edges. There was a round snuffle print and a fan of snow where he'd paused and stuck his nose down in right ahead of his side-by-side front paws. A magpie had hopped in a circle all the way around the big pine and kept on going out toward the woods. His long tail print followed behind the tracks of his big feet.

Looking out on the calm, white world, a hope started deep inside me. "I can," I whispered to myself. "I can. I can. Just like I used to."

I called up what Daddy said was my stubborn streak and snatched my coat off one of the fat ten-penny nails Daddy had hammered into the wall to holdour outdoor duds and knapsacks. I stuck my arms through the sleeves as quick as I could, buttoned it lickety-split.

My heart started to thud, but I ignored it.

My jaws commenced to ache from clenching my teeth. I ignored them, too.

"I can." I tried to say it in a stubborn manner. The steel latch on the cabin door was cold as death to my fingers. I'd meet Daddy right outside, I told myself, and say good morning, and he would give me the biggest smile. His eyes would look surprised, amazed, and proud as all get out. I lifted the latch and the cabin door swung out.

Frigid claws of air sliced at my face. My hands flew up to cover my ears under the woolen cap, and I hadn't even told them to.

"I can. I can."

My heart pounded so I thought it would burst through my chest. Out the door I pushed myself and onto the front porch. Nettles of dry snow pelted my cheeks. I looked up and my breath caught in my throat; the sky was so gray, so low. Masses of clouds as big as the continent of Africa rolled past over my head.

Pressing my ears tight against my head, I forced my eyes down to the porch and made myself concentrate on the wooden planks. I tried to step just where the snow had blown off and the boards showed. I pushed my feet past the knothole shaped like a wolf's head. It was smack in the middle of plank number four, counting from the cabin door.

I stepped onto plank number six with the eleven nail scratches in it; snow covered most of them. I made a new scratch on my birthday every year. I had started carving them when I turned four, and the marks from back then were shallow and wiggly. They got deeper and straighter each year.

I forced my feet over my birthday lines and across plank seven and plank eight. There were only two more boards, two more boards to the edge of the porch. "I can. I can."

But my ears were starting in. The ache commenced, the ache that stretched from my ears to my toes... the losing-Mama ache.

"I can." My voice sounded small and raggedy and muffled.

I was almost to the edge. Almost to where the porch stopped and the wide world began.

There was hardly any steam coming from my mouth now. I gasped air in, but I couldn't let it go.

I blinked my eyes, scrunched them tight to stop their tears; but I told my legs to keep on. And they did, pushing me out to the edge, out to the edge.

The sky seemed to drag on the tops of the pine trees, coming lower and lower, squeezing me and making my head spin.

I lifted my right foot off the porch and hung it out in the air. I commanded my knees to bend; I ordered my right foot to reach for the ground.

I couldn't see the ground for my tears, and my eardrums vibrated with the sobs I tried to hold inside.

"Mama!" The scream blew out of my mouth like the wailing wind.

As I whirled back to the cabin door, I caught sight of Daddy headed for the shed, where he had a deer carcass frozen. He spun around when I screamed, and our eyes met.

He didn't have the biggest smile on his face.

He didn't look proud.

He didn't look surprised or amazed.

The Leanin' Dog. Copyright © by K. Nuzum. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

K. A. Nuzum, the author of A Small White Scar, had an early career as a ballroom dancer before earning her MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College. She is the leader of a pack of five dogs, one husband, and two sons on a small farm in eastern Colorado.

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Leanin' Dog 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
BookReader920713 More than 1 year ago
Awesome. Touches your heart and makes you want to buy a puppy. <3
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
When i got this book it was in perfect condition. But the problem was not the condition the book was in but rather the story itself. I would not reccomend this story to young readers. But rather an older group. But it was ok overall. *
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
TeensReadToo More than 1 year ago
Dessa Dean is afraid to venture outside her cabin in Colorado. Not long ago, Dessa Dean and her mama were trapped outside in the snow - and mama didn't make it back alive.

Dessa Dean is tortured by daymares (nightmares that come in the daytime) and the tips of her ears, which were wounded with frostbite in the accident that claimed her mama, keep burning. She can't bring herself to leave the safety of inside and is wracked by grief.

When Dessa Dean finds a dog outside, things start to change. The dog has a sore leg and needs her help. Dessa Dean's daddy isn't thrilled with the idea of adding a dog to the family, especially since the dog has a fear of its own. The dog is afraid of enclosed spaces and doesn't like to have the cabin door shut.

Together, these two companions can learn to get past their fears and help each other heal.

THE LEANIN' DOG is a beautifully written story of healing and hope. Any animal lover will find something special about the story and enjoy the relationship between Dessa Dean and her newfound dog.
Guest More than 1 year ago
My Review of The Leanin¿ Dog by K. A. Nuzum: K. A. Nuzum¿s new book, The Leanin¿ Dog, tells a first person narrative story about a young girl named Dessa Dean who is eleven years old. The story takes place during the winter in Colorado in the 1930s just before Christmas. Dessa is a lonely child who desperately needs a friend, especially since her mother died. She thinks she will never be happy again. Dessa is trapped. She is a victim of her own mind¿s fear, the fear of leaving her home, known as agoraphobia. To make it harder, Dessa doesn¿t want her father to know about this fear. He has enough to deal with. While Father tries to keep things at home going by keeping the wood pile for the stove for food and warmth, he also tries to help Dessa with her school work. Along with that, he tries really hard to kill some animal for their dinner so that Christmas can be special. As father struggles with these things, Dessa still tries to stop what she calls the daymares and tries to keep Father from finding out about them. When Dessa¿s ears starts to ache, she knows a period of ¿losing Mama pain¿ is beginning. Her ears hurt as her memory takes her back to when her mother died and Dessa¿s ears had been frostbitten. She was holding her mother in the snow waiting for someone to find them even though their footprints were blotted away by the snowstorm. That horrible time when her mother died in her arms is something Dessa can¿t forget and therefore, she continues to have these nightmares (daymares) and can¿t force herself outside the house. What helps Dessa to deal with the pain and tragedy in her life comes in the form of a canine friend. A stray dog comes into Dessa¿s life and gives her someone to love again. The dog is just what she needs--a friend. Here is someone to tell her troubles to and share her secrets with as well as her heart. Dessa finds in the dog a friend who can help her deal with her paralyzing fear of leaving the house. Oddly enough, the dog has a fear as well. He doesn¿t like to be closed up in small places. When she finally coaxes him into the house and goes to close the door, he is upset and she realizes she must leave the door partly open as this dog also has a fear of something¿a fear of being in small, enclosed spaces known as claustrophobia. In order to ease his fear, the open door adds to Dessa¿s problems as it causes the piled up wood to burn quicker and invites marauders to the home. Slowly, with each friend allowing for the other¿s fear to be gently guarded, Dessa begins to find the happiness she has lost and this helps her with her father as well. Together, the three of them help each other to get through the tragedy of losing Dessa¿s mother and the joy of the holiday season. Submitted by Karen Haney, August, 2008