Gary Paulsen was born on May 17, 1939, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His father served in the military and Paulsen did not meet him until 1946, when the family joined him in the Philippines. Paulsen remembers running wild at age seven, learning about street life firsthand. Eventually, in 1949, he and his parents returned to the United States, moving frequently about the country as his father’s postings were changed. He recalls being antisocial and a very poor student until he was a teenager.
My Life in Dog Years contains stories about several of Paulsen’s dogs. A few are sad, but even the sad ones can be funny. For instance, in “Dirk,” Paulsen lives in a basement, surviving on what he can earn from setting pins at the bowling alley and selling newspapers in bars and trying to avoid having his money stolen by teenage thugs. This is a bleak background, but Paulsen tells the story with much vigor, and the descriptions of Dirk chasing away thugs are very funny. Other stories describe disastrous circumstances, but Paulsen seems to attract dogs that love him, at least two of which he characterizes as coming close to being “a live nuclear weapon,” and a smart dog or two that were smarter than many humans. My Life in Dog Years is informative reading, it is adventure in the wilderness, it is dogs, bears, skunks, pigs, gardens, and barns, and it often tugs at the heart, but mostly it is fun. The lingering impression from the book is happiness.
Paulsen moved so much and so many times that it is hard to pin down exactly where he lived at any given moment. Thus, the settings for My Life in Dog Years wander; adding to the confusion is that the stories are not necessarily presented in chronological order. The novel is constructed as though Paulsen is sitting with some folks and swapping dog stories with them, so the dogs come up in a casual order.
My Life in Dog Years is an autobiography because it is about Paulsen’s relationship with dogs, but the dogs are the stars of the book. Paulsen declares: I am-I say this with some pride and not a little wonder-a ”dog person.“ I make no excuses for unabashedly loving them-all of them, even some that have bitten me. I have always had dogs and will have dogs until I die. I have rescued dozens of dogs from pounds, always have five or six of them around me, and cannot imagine living without dogs. They are wonderful and, I think, mandatory for decent human life.
Paulsen is a sort of poet of the wilderness, and he paints pictures of it in spare sentences that are vibrant with color, as in “The maples were red gold and filtered the sunlight so that you could almost taste the richness of the light.” Paulsen does not waste words, but each story is amply described, with not only colors but smells and sounds making the background of the events he relates seem abundantly populated with life.
This book is primarily about a man’s relationship with dogs. Paulsen makes few attempts to universalize his experiences; he does say that he believes dogs are necessary to civilized living, and he does find a trait or two in his dogs that he can find in other dogs-for instance, Josh’s high intelligence seems to be found in other Border collies.
TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
1. What was the most important thing Snowball gave Paulsen? Why would Snowball remain fresh in his memory 50 years later?
Eastern Sun, Winter Moon offers a fuller account of Paulsen’s life in the Philippines and Snowball than does My Life in Dog Years. Paulsen says that the place was insane, and it certainly seems to have been. Destruction was everywhere, and the leavings of the military conflict were always underfoot. The book can be read as an adventure or as the story of a family’s dissolution. Much of young Paulsen’s desperate loneliness comes through.