To set the parameters of my review: I know next to nothing about autism. My knowledge of this disorder is limited to the anecdotal, the various news items and studies that pass across our daily consciousness, this and that about autism being over diagnosed, that it may be caused by something in our food, or by various childhood vaccinations, and other such. I won't claim to hold strong opinions on any of this, as it has not been an area of research or particular interest to me. I have a couple of casual acquaintances with autistic children, both highly functional, and that's it--that's all I've got.
For this very reason--because I know so little about this diagnosis which children today alarmingly often seem to have attached to them--I took on reading Monica Holloway's Cowboy & Wills: A Love Story with particular interest. I wondered if autism might be something like ADHD, another diagnosis that seems difficult to make. Indeed, my own son was diagnosed with it at one point in his childhood and early teen years, only to have the next doctor cry "balderdash!" and the next one reverse that and the next one reverse that again. I eventually agreed with the balderdash opinion. He does not, never did, have ADHD. Nor did he have any other number of diagnoses that various doctors with an alphabet soup of credentials behind their names make. He was a teenager growing up without a father in a single-parent home, and so he acted out his anger and confusion and fear of abandonment. He grew up, gained maturity and understanding, and stopped acting out. End of story. So is this epidemic of autism anything like that? I don't know, don't claim to know, but my curiosity was piqued.
I was quickly drawn into Monica Holloway's story about her young son, Wills.
"Wills Price is exceptional.
"If you happen to meet him walking down our street, you'd see a lanky boy in red baggy sweatpants. His thick black eyelashes frame enormous, cornflower blue eyes and he has freckles that march across the top of his tiny turned-up nose. When he lets loose with a belly laugh, his dimples deepen and he throws his head back while twisting the front of his shirt. He prefers wearing stripes--T-shirts, and turtlenecks mostly. He's very particular about this. There have to be stripes."
As a mother, I was already smiling. My son is a big man now, with great heart and great shoulders, carrying his own world upon them, but how well I remember that sweet little face then, those moments of shining brightness, the up-turned nose and freckles, the childish chortle that would remind me, in my adult world, how to laugh.
So Monica Holloway quickly became my friend. My distant alter ego, struggling with parenting and its myriad challenges. The particulars didn't matter. What mattered to me as a reader was that I recognized a mother who loves her child with every fiber of her being, and would do anything but anything for him, even the toughest task of all--step back and let him occasionally take a fall on his own. I won't say that all her parenting skills were perfect. Who am I to know? There is no manual, only heart required, lots of it and always open. Holloway has that. And in her self-effacing style of telling the story of Wills and his golden retriever pup, Cowboy, she was touchingly willing to put her own shortcomings out there for public scrutiny. Her writing style reminded me a little of the popular author Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love and Committed), juxtaposing serious medical concerns (in Gilbert's case, the seriousness of the pain of a marriage breaking up) with delicious moments of humor. After all, sometimes life hurts so much all you can do is laugh and get on with it.
Using animals as therapy may not have initially been Holloway's intent, but as most mothers do, she operates by instinct. When Wills has a particularly bad day--sobbing when his classroom of peers are too loud, too fast, too bustling with a confusion of activity, for instance--Holloway makes a detour to the pet store. She brings home guinea pigs, hamsters, fish, rabbits, hermit crabs, turtles, in short, a menagerie of critters to soothe and amuse her son. And it works. Any pet owner will tell you, and the medical profession, too, that our pets can relax rattled nerves, lower blood pressure, and alleviate a sense of isolation. It is not unusual to hear about animals opening up humans to functionality when other humans fail to do so. Buying the boy a puppy seems a natural progression on the animal chain of pets.
While I may question Holloway's decision to be very close-mouthed with others about her son's autism, and by doing so isolating herself and her family from social support and no doubt other avenues of help and advice, I will not judge her for it. I have not raised her son; she has not raised mine. Every individual is different, and if I have learned to trust anything, it is a mother's loving instinct on raising her son. I trust that instinct even over medical professionals. I have had reason to do so. Perhaps she does, too. Wills, after all, is highly functioning, and really quite bright. The words that come out of this babe's mouth gave me quite a few occasions for my own belly laugh in reading about his young life. There is no quibble with the boy's high level of intelligence and wit!
So there is Cowboy, the other great personality in this story, the furry charmer. Cowboy is actually a girl dog, and she arrives with a medical issue of her own--canine lupus. Another thing I did not know: dogs, too, can get lupus. When Holloway first brought the puppy home from a pet store, even as she knew that buying dogs from pet stores isn't always a good idea (puppy mill sources), she did not know about the lupus, only that the pup seemed infected with something. Cowboy did live about two and a half years, and charmed years they were. The Holloway family falls in love with her and she with them, but no one more so than Wills. The photographs alone in the book are enough to make one's heart toasty warm: the boy and the dog curled up together in deep sleep. Where humans have fallen short in easing the boy's discomfort in adjusting to the world around him, the dog nudges him beyond his comfort zone and inspires him to go beyond his earlier limits.
The Holloways spend a great deal of time and money on their son, and it is a blessing that they apparently are able to do so--maxing out credit cards, dipping into and emptying accounts, while taking Wills to a laundry list of specialists and therapists, even hiring someone to "shadow" him in school while he adjusts. Not all parents have such means, but lucky are those who have them to use. We all do whatever we can for our children, and then some. Nothing can carry us through like the unconditional love of a good mother.
Even when we have to deal with a very painful loss: Cowboy eventually succumbs to his lupus. Still a young dog, she dies, and having gone through that, too--the loss of a much loved pet that stayed true when not all humans would or do--I understand the grief the entire Holloway family feels. Yet the wonders Cowboy was able to accomplish for Wills live on. He is much more social, much more comfortable in his daily routine, because of those two plus years with Cowboy as constant companion.
This is a tender love story--between mother and son, between boy and dog. It tugs at the heart in all the right ways and by all the right strings, with laughter and tears, surprise and delight, frustration and grief. Whatever the particulars of how any one family chooses to deal with their problems, one thing rings true. Everyone needs a safe place in life in order to thrive. A place where we know ourselves loved for who we are, and are always encouraged to be more.
~Zinta Aistars for The Smoking Poet, Spring 2010 Issue
This is a love story, about a child and a dog. The writing is competent, but not inspired. The story is a good one, a story that keeps the reader interested, but not quite glued to the page. I felt that the author could have done so much more with this, but for some reason did not. There were no obvious mistakes or glaring defects, just a creditable effort that failed to reach for greatness. I think most people will enjoy the book without being profoundly moved.