Writing at a coffee shop the other day — one of my favourite activities — I glanced out the window at the collection of dogs tied up outside while their owners were inside. Without exception, the dogs were worried. How could I tell? Dogs don’t have the same facial expressions as humans. They can’t frown or smile as we do, yet I had no trouble reading their emotions. Right in front of my eyes, was an object lesson on body language.
To indicate their distress, the dogs strained to the end of the leash, eyes fixed on the door through which their particular human had disappeared. Sometimes they ran in a little circle before resuming the tense pull toward the door. They shifted their feet. They glanced over a shoulder, then back to the door. When a well-meaning passer-by stopped to pat them, they’d give a half-hearted lick to the friendly hand or a single tail-wag, but their concentration never wavered from the door.
When the longed for human finally returned some dogs stood on their hind legs, some shook their heads so vigourously their ears flew out like wings. Tongues administered doggie kisses everywhere. Canines ran a happy circle about the owner’s legs. Tails wagged fast and furious. Shoulders relaxed, heads up, eyes glued to the human, the dog’s body language told the story of a long (maybe three minutes) wait, a presage of disaster and a final resolution of intense joy.
When I returned to my editing, I kept a sharp eye out for overuse of common body language in my prose. My characters smile, frown and sometimes run their hands through their hair. Pretty unimaginative! As I worked, I considered the lesson from the dogs. Perhaps my anxious heroine should shift her weight frequently, look toward the object of desire, then away, then back again. Perhaps my happy hero should sprawl in a chair, relaxed and content while he gazes at the heroine. Perhaps a child could lean against his mother’s knees in utter joy.
In The Man for Her, I used a dog as a foil for one of the characters and to propel the story at a critical point. In an early draft of the book, I had the dog get old and sick. Lottie shot him to end his pain. I used that scene to show her strength of character. When a beta reader read it she was horrified. How could I kill the dog?!! She loved the dog. She didn’t care that I wrote fiction. Save the dog was her vehement advice. In the end, I didn’t kill the dog. I couldn’t bring myself to inflict that sorrow on my readers.
But sometimes life is cruel. In that same book I make reference to the Remittance Men, young, well-born, well-educated English gentlemen, who emigrated by the boatload to the colonies of the British Empire. Between 1875 and 1900, 45,000 of these ‘gentlemen’ came to Canada. The emigrants were generally younger sons who, for various economic and social causes, suddenly found themselves superfluous at home. They eagerly flocked to the Canadian west, convinced they could continue to live the life of an English squire, owning hundreds of acres, a stable full of fine horses, and a pack of dogs. As a group, these men were ill-suited and ill-prepared for the rigours of earning a living in Canada’s west, where they were expected to do the work themselves and not rely on servants and tenants. Most of them failed. Instead of an income from their labour, they relied on an allowance from home.
With some exceptions, the majority were misfits in a land of hard-working farmers, miners and loggers. The remittance man, so named for his oft repeated promise to pay his tab “when the remittance comes in,” gained a reputation for running up debts, drinking to excess, and looking down his nose at his “colonial” neighbours. In short, the term “remittance man” was a label of scorn.
For all the disappointment of their new lives, most of these gentlemen remained true to their ideals of sportsmanship, fair play, public duty and patriotism. When the call for volunteers came at the start of WWI, remittance men flocked to the recruiting offices, ready to defend the mother country. In a sad post script to a sad interlude, they had to dispose of their animals before marching off to war. There is a story of one group of men who arranged with their fellows to lessen the pain. The last act of a man going off to war, was to ride to his neighbour’s home and, in friendship, shoot the dogs.
Looking at the eager faces of the dogs outside my coffee shop, I can well believe the story. Even in kindness it would be impossible to draw a gun on your own dog. Even more unthinkable to abandon it. For all their faults, I feel a pang of sympathy for the unloved remittance man.