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Story Behind the Story #63: Old Wolf

My two sons Jack and Robert, though four years apart in age, were inseparable. So when Robert started high school, we thought Jack would need a new, close friend. We found an Alaskan Malamute puppy for him. The sole male in a litter of six, we drove home with the tiny dog on Jack’s lap, while debating the right name for the dog. Jack informed us that Malamutes were traditionally named after some place in Alaskan geography. Thus the dog came to be named McKinley—after Mt. McKinley, the highest mountain in the United States. And indeed, McKinley grew into a very large animal.

The Good DogMcKinley became the classic family dog, loved by all of us and full of love for us—each in a different way. He was a wonderfully sweet fellow, perhaps not the smartest, but intensely loyal. If you know my book The Good Dog, he became the prototype of that euphonious protagonist. Even Jack is in the book.

One of my favorite stories about McKinley is when Jack became engrossed with Harry Potter, so much so that he ignored McKinley. One day when Jack took a break from endlessly reading the book, the dog got on Jack’s bed and deftly tore out the complete chapter that Jack was reading. Maybe he was smart.

McKinley was not just large, he looked very much like a wolf, so much so that when people first met him they often backed away. That wolf-look fascinated me, and led me to learn much about wolves. You will see some of that in The Good Dog, too.

Large work dogs like McKinley usually live to about thirteen or fourteen years. Sure enough, when he became thirteen, McKinley became ill with a variety of age-related sicknesses. Over time, despite many vet appointments, he became racked with pain and old age. Understandably, his personality changed. Once, when I was trying to help him stand he snapped my hand, drawing blood. He died peacefully as we held him.

Old WolfAll of this is the background for my novella, Old Wolf, which is about an aging wolf who has been badly wounded. It’s also about the wolf’s relationship with a mysterious raven named Merla, the Welsh name for Raven. (Remember Merlin the magician?) Remarkably, such relationships happen in the real world. It’s also about a boy whose knowledge of life and death comes through video games—until he meets the old wolf.

The story was set in my Colorado mountain world. Brian Floca, who did the illustrations, came for a visit to get the settings right. There is an image of my rural post office, which has a portrayal of Dick Jackson, the editor of the book. As for Brian’s cover illustration, I never had a better one.

As for McKinley, I still retain a slight scar on my hand where he, in pain, bit me. Now and again I look at that scar, and have many a loving memory. Scars can do that.

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