A few weeks ago, as I was browsing my personal book library, I rediscovered a children’s book that I hadn’t seen for years – since the year 2000 to be exact. The book: Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. I remember Shiloh distinctly because my then 11-year old son had just finished reading it for a school assignment and thought I might like it. He suggested Shiloh to me as a change of pace from my usual reading fare of history and biography.
My son was absolutely correct… I loved this book! Shiloh turned out to be much more than just a summertime reading diversion…it became for me a deeply moving reading experience in its own right. I was quickly captivated by Marty Preston and his family, Shiloh, the beagle, and yes, even the despicable Judd Travers.
The story is straightforward: Marty Preston is an eleven-year old boy living with his parents and two younger sisters in rural West Virginia. It is a close-knit, loving family with traditional values and a clearly defined set of rules to live by. His father is a mail carrier and his mother a homemaker; the family doesn’t have much money.
One Sunday afternoon, as Marty is walking along a backwoods road, he spies a young beagle hiding under a bush. He calls to it, but the animal doesn’t respond. When Marty walks away, the beagle follows him. Marty tries to get the dog to come to him several times, but the animal, which has obviously been abused, cowers miserably. Finally, the beagle happily comes to Marty when the boy whistles at him. Marty immediately falls in love with the dog, which he names Shiloh. The little beagle responds with trust and affection. The boy quickly figures out that Shiloh belongs to Judd Travers, a local ne’er-do-well, and a man with an unsavory reputation for dishonesty, a hot temper, and animal abuse. Marty wants to keep Shiloh, to protect him from Judd. However, his parents insist he return the dog to its rightful owner, which Marty begrudgingly does.
Shiloh runs away from Judd a second time and finds his way back to Marty’s house. This time, Marty vows to keep him. He hides the dog, sneaks food out of the house to feed him, and begins to lie to friends and family when questioned about Shiloh’s whereabouts. A tragic accident causes Marty’s secret to be found out by his parents. He is forced once again to return Shiloh to his master. Marty, desperate to keep Shiloh, offers to do almost anything to get Judd to give him the dog.
I won’t give away the ending of the book; suffice it to say, it is a dramatic and compassionate ending, sure to move anyone who reads this book.
Shiloh is a beautifully and masterfully written children’s book in every way. It is written in the first person, from Marty’s point of view. The narrative is written in a rural West Virginia dialect that sounds totally natural and unaffected. It seemed almost possible for me to hear Marty speak as I read along. The book’s plot is absolutely superb – tightly woven, dramatic, and realistic. Each of the characters comes to life with complete believability. All of the situations presented in the narrative are easy to understand and appropriate for young readers.
Phyllis Reynolds Naylor proves why she is such a gifted writer of children’s books, mainly because she so brilliantly fires the reader’s imagination and teaches positive values. In the story, she presents Marty with an ethical dilemma which, at one time or another, all children face. Marty’s predicament is this: whether to do what is right in the eyes of his parents when it is a reasonable certainty that the action will result in a great wrong being done by someone else; or to do what his heart says is right, even though that action is wrong in the eyes of his parents. Marty’s dilemma is compounded his conscience, which speaks loudly and often to him, demanding from him both honesty and a sense of fair play. How Marty responds to these challenges is the great lesson taught by this book.
MY VERDICT: Shiloh is a 1992 winner of the Newbery Medal for “…the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” It is indeed a classic of children’s literature! Although written specifically at the age 9-12 reading level, I heartily recommend it to kids of all ages…from 9 to 99.
Newbery Medal – Wikipedia article