It’s interesting, the events that end up punctuating our lives, shaping our memories and becoming the stories we tell again and again. For author David Berner, those events are connected by animals, a series of pets in his life from boyhood through his adult years.
Berner, an award-winning writer from the Chicago area, shares those stories in There’s a Hamster in the Dashboard, a collection of eighteen essays that illustrate his “life in pets,” from the collie named Sally he got for his first birthday to a wolf spider named Ralph to a yellow lab named Mike, Berner traces the years of his life through stories of love, loyalty, and loss. He also shares stories about the pets he has shared with his parents and with his own wife and their two sons, from a gecko to a hamster to a turtle. Cats, dogs, rodents, amphibians—Berner’s life has been punctuated with all manner of animal—all of which had lasting effects.
Those who keep pets and those who wish they did will be able to identify with many of the happenings and feelings in these pages. We hear about how Sally the collie may have saved Berner’s life when, as a toddler, he wandered out of his house and down the street in his neighborhood before his dog chased him down, turned him around, and nudged him home, much to the relief—and delight—of his mother. We see as he nurses Nicky the squirrel after finding the bushy-tailed rodent with an injured leg. We learn how toting a turtle home in his golf bag changed his outlook on zoos. Each of these stories serves as a brief vignette that illuminates Berner’s evolution from boy to teen to adult, from child to father, each instance serving as a lesson that taught Berner about life and about himself.
Breezy and light, some of the essays in the collection are more touching than others, some more amusing than others. The preface might well be some of the best writing in the book, perfectly capturing what it’s like to own—and love—a pet, regardless of breed or species. All of the stories are thoughtful, going well beyond the ins and outs and highs and lows of pet ownership to consider what our experiences with pets teach us. Two of the best essays bookend the collection. “The Intelligence of Dogs” makes us appreciate what might well be wisdom or nurturing of the animals we care for while “The Real Thing” makes us grateful for the love and loyalty of the pets we share our lives and homes with. The middle of the collection is graced with “The Last Bite,” a poignant reflection on life and death and what it means to lose someone you love, whether two-legged or four-legged. Some of the essays are not as strong. “Piranha Envy,” for example, smacks of one of those you-had-to-be-there stories that isn’t quite as funny or touching in the retelling on paper.
That said, the book features many more hits than misses. As such, There’s a Hamster in the Dashboard is easy reading, a short book that, although a quick read, is full of stories and emotions that linger, making us think not just about Berner and his life with pets, but of ourselves and of our own lives with the pets in them and of the deep value and lasting lessons these beautiful, wonderful, loving creatures share with us.
May 2015, Dream of Things
$10, paperback, 126 pages
—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen