Recommended Reading: Tom Ryan’s “Following Atticus”

swfnf atticus snark

That’s a screenshot taken from a post at the old SwF&F wherein I micro-review 54 books that Becky and I gave away at our book-themed wedding.  That’s me trying to be entertaining by ragging on a book I hadn’t read.  I had a wedding to prep for, so cut me some slack.

I wasn’t kidding, though; dog books aren’t my thing.  I grew up with a dog named Whiskey but it never broadened into a generalized love for the species, the way it did with cats.  I took Following Atticus home from BEA because it got a rave on an editor’s panel, but I couldn’t imagine a scenario which ended with me actually reading it.  Forced at gunpoint?  Mom gets kidnapped by the Kennel Club and they demand I read it?  House and all worldly possessions within burn flat but somehow my copy of Following Atticus survives and with no other books, no access to TV on Netflix, and no DVDs, I must at last succumb to the memoir about the guy who hikes the mountains of New Hampshire with his dog?

When I gave the book away years ago, I figured I’d seen the last of it.  Then my reading group, Page Against the Machine, picked it.  I saw that Tom Ryan named his newspaper The Undertoad and figured that anyone so enamored of John Irving had to be worthwhile.  Indeed, Ryan is a fan of a lot of literature.  He references dozens of authors and works but here are two of my favorite quotes, which I hadn’t heard before reading this book:

“Permanence in poetry as in love is perceived instantly. It has not to await the test of time. The proof of a poem is not that we have never forgotten it, but that we knew at sight we never could forget it.” – Robert Frost

“Our faith comes in moments; our vice is habitual.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

When you read the letter that opens the book, you know that Ryan has a way with words.  The book itself is less poetic and more plodding – this happened, then this happened, then this – but the straightforward style works with the book’s heart.  There’s a lot of love on these pages, for literature, for family, for nature, for his fellow man, and of course, for Atticus.  We root for Tom and Atticus as they tackle peak after peak, and our hearts warm to read of their bond.  But mostly, I found myself rooting for him to make peace with his father.  The point Ryan makes is that if Atticus hadn’t opened his heart, he would never have made peace with his past and learned how to love.

I don’t know whether that’s true.  He has an awfully big heart to begin with, as most evidenced by his curiosity at his neighbors in Newburyport.  In one scene, he visits a dying John Bartlett in the hospital to read him the latest Undertoad before it goes to press.

“When you and Atticus are on a mountain, is it like you said?” he asked.

“How So?”

He closed his eyes and said in his halting voice, “You once wrote that sitting on top of a mountain and looking out at all that surrounds you is like looking at the face of God.”

He had a good memory, for I’d written that a year and a half earlier.

“Yes, that’s exactly what it’s like.”

He then asked me if I would do him a favor.  If it wasn’t too much trouble, he wanted me to think of him the next time I was on top of a peak with Atticus.  It was my pleasure to say I would.

Before I left, I told John that I’d heard he had recently celebrated his sixtieth wedding anniversary with his wife.  I congratulated him on the accomplishment and noted that at my age it was a milestone I would never experience.  “That’s amazing.  What’s it like?”

John Bartlett – who would be dead within forty-eight hours, dry skin hanging off his bones, eyes barely open, lips dry and cracked and life just barely in him – well, he paused, and then the faintest smile appeared and he said, “It’s a lot like being on top of a mountain.”

If I had continued to dismiss Following Atticus as “just a dog book” then I would have missed that scene, and so much more that it has to offer.  Mr. Ryan, I’m sorry.  Thanks for teaching me not to judge a book by its cover; hopefully, the lesson sticks this time.

following atticus


11 thoughts on “Recommended Reading: Tom Ryan’s “Following Atticus”

  1. I read a book once by a woman who said she had two ways of walking with her dog. In one, she was in charge and he had to follow. In the other, he got to lead. And she says those were the most interesting walks, as she discovered he knew a lot of things she didn’t–like how to find water in the middle of the woods. That’s what the title of this book made me think about. Did Ryan have any similar experiences with his dog, or is the “following” in the title more metaphorical?


    • On one level, the “following” is a metaphor. Ryan’s rough childhood closed him off from unconditional love but his friendship with Atticus opened his heart. He also literally follows Atticus up 48 4,000-foot peaks through the mountains of New Hampshire, a much more labored experience for Tom than it turns out to be for Atticus.

      They challenge themselves to hike all 48 peaks in the winter, a goal that can be lethal if not done wisely. There are days when the conditions seem ideal. The pair rise early, pack up, and even get as far as the mountain itself. Atticus refuses to get out of the car, or walks a few feet through the snow and heads right back. Each time, Ryan trusts his friend not and calls the day off (even though he feels the goal slipping further away). It happened three times, if I remember correctly. On one occasion, the mountain they turned from claimed a life that day.

      Atticus also never uses a leash. Ryan’s story about first attempting and then abandoning leash training with Atticus is great. He loves and respects Atticus so much that the dog reciprocates, walking, interacting, and even waiting alone much as a human would. It’s really cool to read about a dog behaving as he does, and people’s various reactions.


    • Read it and you will find out he literally followed Atticus. Like the reviewer said that is only the beginning, there is so much more. Very interesting easy reading


  2. One of the best books I have ever read. It is so much more than a man and his dog. I also have it on CD which is wonderful. It is like having your best friend read the book to you. Tom Ryan has a wonderful voice and a way about him as he reads his book to you. Everyone I have have given this book to, have loaned it to or have told about it feels the same. I had the pleasure of meeting Tom, Atticus and Will in Norwood, MA as part of Norwood reads, it was a lovely evening.


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