By Pamela Ditchoff
@SPL FIC Ditch
At the start of a New Year, we often turn our attention to passing time. In Phoebe’s Way, author Pamela Ditchoff tackles the passage of time in two ways. The story follows the structure of the year, beginning with January and travelling through to the following June. Each brief chapter, set in a particular month, explores Phoebe’s work in a nursing home; Phoebe is a St. Johns Ambulance therapy dog. The residents of the nursing home have another sense of time altogether, as their memories mesh with their present existence.
Set in Nova Scotia, the story evokes the long lifetimes of teachers, fishermen, store owners, priests, and more. Phoebe has the uncanny gift of understanding (and relating to the reader) the memories that are arising in each person as they visit with her owner, whom she calls Myother. Some of these residents’ daily actions seem incomprehensible to others, but as the reader, getting a glimpse of the emotions and relationships of the past makes each character into a person to be cherished.
At 87 pages, with short, simple chapters, this is the kind of book that you could skim through very quickly. But you’ll want to slow down and savour each visit Phoebe makes, to read carefully between the lines, especially the opening lines of each chapter. Each begins with the same paragraph, like a poem that sets up Phoebe’s eager visit. But as the book progresses, small changes occur. Phoebe is the narrator, so we are reading from the dog’s point of view, noticing things that only this admittedly very sophisticated dog is sensing. She sees motives and longings that humans in the room miss. If you can adjust to the narrative voice and suspend your disbelief for the journey, you will appreciate what Ditchoff is trying to do with this story.
It’s a bittersweet, small novel that will appeal to dog lovers, but also to those who appreciate a vision of life as a whole, of our memories as an inescapable part of our self. It would be a wonderful book to share with those who haven’t yet had a lot of experience with our elders; it illuminates the long history which has brought each person to their current state. It’s a book which encourages caring and connection, in their many and varying forms.
– Melanie Kindrachuk, public service librarian