- Learning Joy from Dogs without Collars by Lauralee Summer
- Paperback: 368 pages
- Publisher: Simon & Schuster (June 22, 2004)
- ISBN-13: 978-0743257923
Back-of-the-book blurb: In this memoir about growing up homeless, Lauralee Summer and her eccentric, idealistic mother move repeatedly in search of work and a better life. When she reaches junior high Lauralee and her mother set out for Boston in search of a better education. There Lauralee thrives under the care and guidance of Mr. Mac, becomes the only girl on the school wrestling team, and goes on to Harvard. This is the story of a girl coming into her own, learning and understanding her place in the world. It is about the innocence and resiliency of childhood — the space of joy that poverty is unable to demolish or diminish.
She Is Too Fond of Books’ review: Do you want the good news or the bad news first? OK, the bad news – I didn’t love this book. I feel guilty that I didn’t love this book – how could I not love a book about someone who makes it despite the odds stacked against her, someone whose perseverance and curiosity pushed her to not only survive, but to thrive?
The biggest thing that kept me from glomming onto this book is the distance Summer puts between herself (as a writer) and herself (as a homeless person). She shares stories of her childhood – frustration, indignity, sadness – and, yes – joy, but in an almost clinical manner, as if she is detached from the person she was and is examining the experience as an onlooker. Perhaps that’s a way of coping with what she has been through, but it added a layer of inaccessibility.
However (the good news!), this distance allows Summer to share facts about homelessness, the welfare system, and the difficulty of getting back on one’s feet. I marked several passages that spoke to me about a child’s experience:
For a month we lived in a shelter in a large institutional building. The inside was made up of cinder-block cubicles. They were coded by color and number; each had two sets of bunk beds with bare mattresses. My mom and I lived for a month in Yellow Number 3. I remember one day … being sick … Two children at the shelter gave me a get-well note. On the outside of the card a childish script scrawls: To Yellow Number 3.(p. 75)
We didn’t have a checkerboard, but Ibrahim thought we might be able to make one. That evening he stopped by the family room [in the shelter] with a square of cardboard and a permanent marker. With the marker, he made a grid on the cardboard, coloring every other square in black. I found an old puzzle in the lounge. Many of its pieces were missing, but I picked out pieces of gray clouds and blue sky to use as checkers. We each sat on a plastic milk crate in the hallway and put the checkerboard on another between us. He was blue and I gray, fragmented pieces of sky and cloud.(p. 127)
and commentary on the difficulties in the recovery system:
Children need to trust in their parents’ ability to provide for them, but many poor children cannot. They see their parents’ weakness, see them as slaves to the welfare dole. I knew that the welfare system was strong and powerful, and not my mother. This knowledge produced an inner conflict, a trauma, a yearning, a shame and anger and fear that battled with my desire to love and trust in my mother … I was afraid of being tainted by my mother’s shame and weakness.(p.94)
We had a small refrigerator in our room. Many of the welfare motels didn’t. In another hotel, a woman we knew kept her two-year-old daughter’s milk cold by putting it outside the window ledge. She had to stop when the motel management said it was against the rules. “It’s so hard – we eat junk food all the time because we can’t cook or keep anything cool,” she complained. Food stamps can’t buy restaurant meals either, so people in the welfare hotels often have no way to eat regular, balanced meals.(p. 131)
Summer was greatly influenced by a teacher at her high school, Charles MacLaughlin (“Mr. Mac”) who ran “Heritage,” an alternative program which offered options to those students at greatest risk of getting “lost” in the system and possibly dropping out of school. After earning degrees at Harvard and Berkley, Lauralee Summer is a high school teacher in the Boston Public Schools.
Learning Joy from Dogs without Collars was published in 2004; as I read it, it seemed familiar, like a re-read. Perhaps I’d read about Lauralee Summer in the newspaper, or perhaps it was slightly reminiscent of my reading of The Glass Castle, Jeanette Walls’ memoir about growing up homeless. Despite feeling like Summer was “holding back” a lot of herself, the quotes above show that there is eye-opening insight to be found in this book.