“The Dogs Buried Over the Bridge: A Memoir in Dog Years”
Author: Rheta Grimsley Johnson
Publisher: John F. Blair, Publisher
Price: $26.95 (Hardcover)
Rheta Johnson, veteran syndicated columnist, is the winner of numerous prizes, including the Clarence Cason Award, for her human interest columns on life in the South. Raised near Montgomery and an Auburn graduate, she has logged hundreds of thousands of miles searching out unusual places and personalities, often travelling from her home in Fishtrap Hollow, near Iuka, Mississippi. Along with her columns for papers such as “The Memphis Commercial Appeal” and the “Atlanta Journal-Constitution,” and then later her syndicated work, Johnson has published a series of memoirs.
“Poor Man’s Provence” (2008) celebrates the pleasure Johnson took in her little house in Henderson, Louisiana, the food, the music and the colorful neighbors who became her good friends.
This was followed in 2010 by “Enchanted Evening Barbie and the Second Coming.” Here Johnson writes her life story, from childhood doubts about Santa Claus to her years at Auburn, her first marriage to Jimmy Johnson, with its youthful mistakes, the stress of replacing Lewis Grizzard at the AJC and her brief but wonderful marriage to Don Grierson, who died fairly suddenly in 2009.
In “Hank Hung the Moon” (2012), a mix of her own biography and the life of Hank Williams, Johnson tries to explain the mythological, beatified place Hank occupies in the Southern imagination, and in her own.
So, much of “The Dogs Buried Over the Bridge” will be familiar to her many fans. But she brings us to the present, including her marriage to retired Auburn professor Hines Hall. This time the dogs in her life serve as the spinal column, the reference points.
Some people, men mainly, organize their memories by what car they were driving. The more amorously adventurous (or the many-times married, the Liz Taylors or Mickey Rooneys of the world) peg events to the partner of the day. Literary biographers take their subject from book to book.
A passionate dog lover, Johnson has organized her tale around dogs.
Inside her parents’ house, there were no dogs. Country people believed all animals, including dogs, stayed outside. “Cohabitation just wasn’t done.”
As newlyweds, she and Jimmy adopted Buster and he lived with them, inside, on St. Simon’s Island as they attempted to establish a weekly paper. Buster was followed by many others, each different and odd, as all dogs are. Humphry, for example brought home shoes and lined them up at the back door.
Fishtrap Hollow, her home in northeast Mississippi for many years, is a place the careless and barbaric drop off puppies, “the way some men drop socks on the floor.” Johnson has saved a great many, and the relationships are warm.
There were Albert and Pogo and Barney and Pete, Rufus, Maxi, Striker, and Boozoo, who chased cars and broke his leg, no small deal for Johnson on her limited budget, There were Hank, Buck, Bernie and Hannah. There are wonderful photos of most of these dogs, all colors, all sizes and shapes. Relationships with canines come easily: they are eager and loyal. But the citizens of Fishtrap Hollow are another thing. Aloof, suspicious, ferociously provincial, these Hill Country people are “as different from . . . Delta planters as chitlins from caviar,” but Johnson, a patient and gentle woman, has made many lasting friends there and writes of them affectionately.
Mabel, pronounced May Belle, was the first to be buried “over the bridge,” in Johnson’s personal pet cemetery. Johnson reminds us that, in their short lives, dogs are the embodiment of loyalty and unconditional love. Johnson quotes Lord Byron’s tribute to his dog, Boatswain, “who possessed Beauty without Vanity, Strength without Insolence, Courage without Ferocity and all the virtues of Man without his vices.…”
Dogs, sadly, don’t live very long, and we grieve their passing. Johnson feels the loss of her dogs sharply, perhaps as much as the loss of human friends: “As I age, as loss becomes a constant thread in my life’s tapestry, I do find it harder and harder to separate the humans from the dogs. I’ll admit it. …Why bother anyway?....”
Pondering why dogs have such short lives, Sir Walter Scott concluded, “I am quite satisfied it is in compassion to the human race; for if we suffer so much in losing a dog after an acquaintance of ten or twelve years, what would it be if they were to live double that time?”
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” A shorter form of this review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio.