A.S. King’s opening gambit in The Dust of a 100 Dogs is to scatter a curse across the sands of some three centuries, causing the memories of a 17th Century orphan-turned-pirate named Emer to turn up in the life of Saffron Adams, an Irish-American teenager of alcoholic descent in late 20th Century Pennsylvania. When Emer the pirate’s life is cut short by the distraught lover of a man whom she—yes, the pirate is a woman—has killed, her punishment by “the power of every spirit who has ever known love…[is] to live one hundred years as the bitch [she is].” What follows is an unusual tale of abandonment and loyalty, ferocity, self-sufficiency and the pack instinct. I recommend the novel for its daring, if nothing else, and for the insights those hundred canine lives bring to it—sandwiched as they are between chapters as an oblique running commentary on the events of the story—in the form of advice, from the dog’s point-of-view, on the subject of dog ownership.
In fact, King stitches some rather provocative questions about ownership, loyalty and femininity all through the deceptively simple patterns of her novel, just as Emer secrets stolen gems away in the hems of her embroidered capes. The pirate’s memories send Saffron of Hollow Ford, PA, thinking she’s on a quest for buried treasure, to uncover something more valuable to them both, perhaps, than the “lapful of precious nothing” that Emer herself was left with on a Jamaican beach some three hundred years earlier.
The Dust of 100 Dogs serves up a boatload of swashbuckling and plucking of dead men’s eyes, but I am not convinced of Emer’s swordswomanship, nor of the considerable honor among her fleet of thieves. The romanticized violence is lighthearted enough to earn the novel its place on the Young Adult shelf, but these middle passages do not live up to the promise of the more grounded and vibrant energy of the early chapters, where King is at her best.
That best is remarkable. The dysfunctional milieu of Saffron’s home life—her parents’ grim prospects without her and the desperate hopes with which they seek to anchor her to their bottom-feeding mentality—are at once both familiar and original. The oppressive weight of her mother’s dependency, set off against Saffron’s gifted intellect and the spirited determination with which Emer has infected her, hone the ironies of her situation to a keen edge. Her double-vision provides a fresh and biting metaphor for Twenty-First Century femininity—namely, the coming-of-age of a compassionate, independent intelligence with the impatient soul of a pirate who will smile sweetly and skewer anyone, man or woman, who seeks to own her.
In those early pages, too, we live convincingly through Cromwell’s subjugation of the Irish in the mid-sixteen hundreds and Emer’s bitter struggle to make her way as a free woman of dubious ways and other people’s means. The pit bull tenacity of her young love for Seanie Carroll (who remains off-stage through most of the action and regrettably, therefore, becomes the most easily forgotten character in the story) is Emer’s most enduring and, at times, infuriating trait. The fact that it gets in the way of a grown-up love affair that is arguably better deserved—that is to say, earned, lavishly paid for in devotion, care and consideration—by her first mate and cohort, David, seems downright unfair, unjust, somehow plain wrong. And that seeming injustice—from a certain, shall we say, masculine point of view?—is the subtlest and most brilliant cut of this little gem of a novel.
It is no more a part of Emer’s breeding to be owned by a good and loving man’s devotion than it is to be subject to a worse man’s power or to the terms of contractual privilege worked out on her behalf but without her consent. Women and pirates, King reminds us, operate parallel to, yet wholly outside of, the laws that govern men and by which men seek to govern women and other disreputables. That may make Emer a bitch to love, but her nature doesn’t make her disobedient. It simply means that she, and she alone, will choose the master of her heart.
This review previously appeared at Berkshire Fine Arts