Thursday, March 4, 2010

The USPS has gone to the dogs

In October of 1888, it actually did. A stray terrier-mix dog found his way into the Post Office at Albany, New York one rainy night. The postal workers found him the next morning and never did call the pound to take him away. Dog and workers adopted each other and a mascot was created.

Owney, the Mail-Pouch Pooch, by Mona Kerby, is a fictionalized account of a true story. Ms. Kerby's picture book includes an Author's Note and Bibliography at the end of the book to highlight the origins of the story. There are also two photographs of Owney.

I am not ashamed to say, reading Owney's story aloud to my children made me weepy. I managed not to crack, only allowing the faintest sheen of tears in my eyes and the barest tremor in my voice. The care and attention lavished on this stray dog was certainly noteworthy and, as Ms. Kerby points out, newsworthy. Newspapers of the time followed Owney's exploits.

Yes, a dog can have exploits. After he had been with the post office for a while, Owney hopped a mail train and vanished for weeks. Upon his return, he was unable to tell his human friends where he had been, so (in case he decided to wander again) they attached a note to his collar asking the Railway Postmen to attach their depot tags to his collar so they could track his wanderings.
It wasn't long before Owney hopped another train. The next time Owney showed up in Albany, he had so many tags hanging from his collar that he could barely lift his head.
He rejected efforts to remove any of them, though. The postal workers bought a harness which wrapped around his back and chest in order to distribute the weight of the tags. Owney enjoyed the jingle of all his tags! Ms. Kerby doesn't say how many tags Owney collected in the course of his life, but on his round-the-world trip (sponsored by his human friends) in 1895, he collected over 200 new tags in 132 days.

Ms. Kerby tells Owney's story with obvious affection, and my children were spell-bound. Need I say more? Oh yes, I'd better mention the pictures, seeing as Owney is a picture book! The pen-and-watercolor illustrations by Lynne Barsch are bright and happy and uncluttered.

An outstanding book.

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