This book caught my eye as I was ordering fiction at the library. It absolutely lived up to the prepublication reviews. It’s unlike anything else I’ve read. The protagonist, Carleen Kepper, has recently been paroled after twenty some years in prison when the novel opens. We find out she’s living in a halfway house in New York, working as a dog walker and trainer, and is trying to reconnect with the daughter she bore in prison but who was immediately taken way from her, Pony, now called Batya.
As the novel progresses, the reader learns about Carleen’s early life. Born Ester Rosenthal, she was an artistic prodigy, a sought after and wealthy painter by her teens. But despite her promising future and the friendship of David, a famous artist visiting the college, she got caught up in drugs and petty crime. All that spiraled into a final botched heist, and she ended up sentenced to life in prison, even though she was underaged when it happened. Elizabeth Swados writes vividly about prison life — beatings, rapes, intimidation, conspiracy, and torture. Power trips by wardens, guards, and other prisoners. Throughout these years, Carleen cycles in and out of madness and violence, sessions in solitary confinement and prison clinics. Just before the worst of her criminal mischief and drug addiction, she had married a man named Leonard, and when he is finally allowed to see her in the second prison she lands in, she gets pregnant during the visit.
Towards the end of her incarceration, Carleen is given a puppy who will be a guide dog who she must train. She shows such affinity for the work that she ends up starting a prison puppy training program with the woman who first brought her this work. Somewhere alone the line a young lawyer reads her case and realizes that Carleen should never have been sentenced to life and gets her paroled, and the work with dogs is her lifeline when she gets out.
I won’t tell you how things turn out, but I will say this was one of the most compelling books I’ve read in a long time. The prison bits are stomach turning but perspective shattering. Carleen is an incredible character. She believes there’s something wrong with her emotional reactions, but it’s hard to know if it is a result of physical and psychological injury from the extensive beatings or, as she tells her daughter late in the book, “I think I was born this way. I’m like a clock that’s set wrong. Or I have lifelong jet lag.” But the people who get to know her well love her — people whose dogs she walks, David, and Elisheva, Batya’s bat mitzvah tutor. She enters prison an artist and that is taken from her; the dogs seemed to me to represent all the good parts of Carleen, and her ability to tame them and earn their complete trust and love is how she is slowly finding and saving her true self.
The glimpses of a loving human we see as she works with dogs is in a constant struggle with the “fragments of a criminal” that are deeply embedded in her psyche. This book is about Ester/Carleen but it’s also about what makes us human and whole, what causes dysfunction to morph into psychosis, and whether the things that make us who we are can also make us crazy. It’s also a shocking portrait of the systematic inhumanity visited upon prisoners. Walking The Dog gets inside your head and your heart and stays there.