I read about half of this book as a kid, then returned to it years later, only to find it wasn’t as compelling as I remembered it. Don’t you hate it when that happens? 😦 Anyway, “Hero” (a little known novel by the author of ‘Gentle Ben’) is quite rare and out-of-print, and I had a bitch of a time finding it again after only half-formed memories of reading it as a child. I distinctly remembered a couple of scenes and the cover art (a beautiful painting of a German Shepherd in a field, which you can see above) but couldn’t recall the title or the author. Finally I found it online (thank God for the internet!) and ordered a copy.
Considering how much I had loved the bits I had read as a little girl, I was a little disappointed that this book wasn’t all it was cracked up to be in my memory. The premise is intriguing enough- a earnest young man named Chris George is dishonorably discharged from the coast guard drug bust program after a little incident involving his heroin-sniffing dog, Mike, and a lemon meringue pie. He takes two jobs in order to stay afloat while keeping custody of his beloved dog, but Mike’s discovery of stashes of heroin in the post office where Chris is employed as a security guard triggers a series of events that lead to a group of very bad men in the drug industry hiring a pair of doggy hitmen to rub out Mike!
Luckily this story has a happy ending and is mostly child-appropriate, despite allusions to drugs and child abuse (Chris’ love interest Jennie is mistreated by her domineering father.) The plot strains credulity at some parts to the point of just not making sense, but the biggest problems concern the repetitive prose and the ages of the characters. Firstly, I’m not sure how I feel about adult protagonists in a kids book but Chris seems unusually naive, even simple. I know they have to write him in a way that seems accessible for kids but he seems unrealistically innocent and guileless.
Secondly, the author seemed to have at most three words to describe how each character looked or talked. Bruno the friendly baker, we are told again and again, was fat… we were always getting a earful about Bruno’s ‘fat face,’ as well as Mike’s big head and descriptions concerning Jennie ‘speaking anxiously’ and Mike’s ‘erect ears shooting forward.’ I get fed up quickly with repetitive writing, and even though this is a kids book I think “Hero” could’ve and should’ve been written in a deeper, more complex way. Even the dialogue came off as kind of flat.
On the other hand, the author does a good job with driving the plot forward and building suspense in a way that will keep reluctant readers turning the pages. Chris works hard out of love for his dog, Mike, and does the right thing, avoiding near-catastrophe in the process, and he’s a good role model for kids (though not a particularly interesting hero in his own right.) I highly recommend this book for kids who are interested in drug-sniffing dogs and what they do, as well as the officers that train them to do their invaluable work. They might be more forgiving of the issues I found in this books writing, dialogue, and character development than I was.
It’s also a relief to read a book with a canine protagonist where the dog doesn’t die a tragic death at the end (I’m looking at you “Old Yeller.” A wholesome adventure story for children, if you can get past the somewhat slack writing, but not much cross-appeal for older readers. If you want a kids book that will classify an older person, I would recommend something more substantial in plot and characterization like the “Harry Potter” series.