Sunday, October 11, 2009

Book Review: Learning Joy from Dogs without Collars

Learning Joy from Dogs without Collars is Lauralee Summer's memoir of growing up while experiencing homelessness. Reading its sleeve I misconstrued its intention and thought she would describe it as an idealized upbringing. I got ready to read it with an open mind and expected it to challenge my views on what a healthy environment is for a child -- specifically experiencing instability in terms of not living in a physical home, a constant and safe place to come home to each day. I read it also to explore a world that is in large part foreign to me though I've worked with families in similar situations.

Summer doesn't paint the ideal life that I had inadvertently expected. Her mom was the sole provider and parent in her childhood, though Summer also talks about an important role a teacher played in her life.* Summer and her mom moved frequently (20 times before Summer turned 12) covering four states.

What drew public attention to Summer's story was the fact she overcame homelessness and attended Harvard ("Homeless to Harvard"). Cue the "Oh see, if she was homeless as a child and went on to attend a prestigious school then why don't--" Yet Summer chides the reader not to take too far this accomplishment. She notes her mom's support and love as well as encouragement to learn. Summer consumed books as a child which seemed to give her a head start for school in early years. Though Summer's relationship with her mom was described as tumultuous at times it seemed she was also a rock for Summers – importantly, at one point she confesses to thinking of home as a person, not a house.

Summer's vivid storytelling and sober insights made this a great read. It certainly challenged me. Learning Joy brings to light the reality of families experiencing homelessness and, though maybe not explicitly, reinforces the idea of how easy it may be to become homeless. If a family becomes homeless, what should a parent or guardian do? Keep the child or give the child to another person who may provide better? I raise this question since for some period Summer stayed with a foster home and relished the stability that gave her (interestingly, another girl at the house hated the home's rules). I tried to relate it to me. If all other variables were true the same and my parents loved me the way they did, would I prefer to live with strangers rather than my parents, though it meant staying at a shelter? No. (Important to note to that in reality family experiencing homelessness would likely change a lot of the variables around) Would it be healthier for me to live in a more stable life? In many ways, though a foster home would not necessarily be a guarantee for it.

As always, I'm a fan of books that make me think.

* Summer eventually reconnects with her father her sophomore year at college.

For more book reviews, go here.

No comments: