When I was in 2nd grade, I read everything I could get my hands on, and at any given time I was reading a book I checked out from the library. It might be an Encyclopedia Brown, a book about movie monsters, or the most coveted volume in the elementary school library, Garfield: The Complete Cat Book.
Among the many library books I consumed was one about a teenage boy who got turned into a dog. I thought about this book occasionally over the years, and although I didn’t remember the title, it stuck with me. I did recall that it had a few dirty words, and was definitely intended for readers older than the ones perusing the elementary school library.
I also remembered a scene where the dog-guy ate some meat that was poisoned, a scene where he saw his mom on the street but she had no idea it was her son, and a scene where he encountered a woman and noticed that her bra strap was visible.
A few years ago, I found myself thinking about this book again and I tried Googling it. It didn’t take long to discover that it was The Dog Days of Arthur Cane by T. Ernesto Bethancourt. Recently I mentioned this to Staci, and in a characteristic move, she ordered a copy for me to surprise me. All these years later, I was curious to revisit the story and see how familiar it would be.
It was not very familiar! I knew there would be a chapter about the titular Arthur Cane waking up and realizing he had transformed into a canine, but I didn’t even remember how he got turned into a dog in the first place: Arthur arrogantly belittles the culture of a friend who’s from an African nation, and the friend puts a hex on him. That’s probably not how that would go in a YA book published today.
After waking up as a dog and realizing his own family won’t recognize him, Arthur wanders around his Long Island town trying to find a temporary home before inadvertently hopping a truck bound for Manhattan. In Greenwich Village, he’s taken in by a blind folk singer who calls him “Awful” because that’s what it sounds like when Arthur attempts to say his name using his dog vocal cords.
It’s a pretty good book. The “About the Author” bio tells of Bethancourt’s history as a performer in the Village, and his affection for the artists of the neighborhood is evident as Arthur grows closer to the folk singer and his friends. Arthur presumably learns his lesson by the end because he reverts back to being a human, although he doesn’t go through much of an arc. But the themes of friendship and the mutual benefits of helping others are worthy of a book aimed at potentially selfish, greedy teenagers.
Speaking of which: I was right about one thing. The Dog Days of Arthur Cane is definitely not meant for 2nd graders. I guess standards were different in 1976 when it was published, but I imagine it was intended for high school kids. The word “ass” appears several times. There’s a scene where Arthur and his human friends all get drunk, and a sequence near the end where Arthur finds himself on death row in a pound run by a jerk who hates dogs. He talks a lot about his impending doom and eventually resigns himself to his fate. It’s heavy stuff. I read this when I was approximately seven years old!
I was also right about the scene where Arthur eats poisoned meat. It’s fed to him by a different dog-hating jerk on the streets of Manhattan, a jerk whose apparent mission is to reduce the city’s stray dog population. It was pretty disturbing, but it’s followed by a satisfying moment where Arthur tracks the guy down and attacks him. Sic ‘im, Awful!
I was also also right about the scene where Arthur sees his mom. Arthur/Awful is helping his singer friend pass the hat after a street corner performance, and his mom is one of the passersby, but she never suspects it’s him, probably because her son is not normally a furry quadruped.
But you know what wasn’t in the book? The scene where he sees a woman and notices her bra strap. I was so certain it would be in there, and a few times I thought it was about to happen, but it never did. What’s up with that? My best theory is that it was a scene from some other age-inappropriate book I checked out from the library around that time. But if it that scenario sounds like something you’ve read in a book, please let me know!
I’m glad I read The Dog Days of Arthur Cane again, especially because my memories were so vague that it was almost the same as reading it for the first time. I wonder if the librarians of Dripping Springs Elementary School had any idea what was in the pages of this book that was right there on the shelf waiting for 2nd-graders to find it. Also, I hope I never turn into a dog. I like having opposable thumbs.