Book Review – Unconditional
“You’re never too old, too sick, too poor, too anything to find joy. I find it every day with my Chloe.” The words of wheelchair-bound Waymon Simmons of his 9 year old Pekingese with whom he shares his life in Massachusetts capture the essence of ‘Unconditional’ a divine book by photographer Jane Klonsky. Over two hundred pages an exploration of the unique relationships between older dogs and their human companions is documented, with skillful photography and heartfelt prose.
What began a few years ago as a simple photography project to capture the kinship ‘between people and their dogs in the twilight of their lives’ has resulted in an outstanding book, one that’s full of charm and many fine offerings. Turn each page and there’s something beautiful and moving to be found. A book on this theme could easily have slipped into drippy slush but while there are many poignant moments, not a single word or image is misplaced, or sentimentally mawkish.
The emotional pitch is perfect throughout the book. Like this from Shirley who adopted Molly, a puppy mill rescue on the first anniversary of her husband’s death:
Molly was rescued from a breeder in Missouri, who had surrendered her when her “services” were no longer needed. She was nine when we found each other, and I wish she could tell me everything that happened to her before we met. She knows well all that happened to me.
Jane crossed the country collecting stories rich with meaning and has deftly shaped them into what is a book-sized treasure trove. Quite naturally, it’s the brilliant photographs which at first glance appeal, but within minutes of immersing myself in the stories I sank deep into its enthralling embrace. Each relationship is depicted thoughtfully. The beauty of each emerges through attention and compassion, and the result is a collection of stories that linger in the mind long after the book is closed.
The steady, persistent love which dogs offer the humans they share their lives with, is celebrated throughout this remarkable book. A multiplicity of relationships is included: working dogs, fostered, adopted, strays, abandoned, therapy dogs, puppies, shelter dogs, they’re all woven sensitively into this expansive book. Some stories are long lived intense relationships developed over many years, others are shorter but no less intense. What connects them is a deeply heartfelt respect for what dogs offer those of us, who allow them into our lives, and ourselves to open our hearts to them.
Then there are the stories which show how unique the connections between dogs themselves can be. Cookie, blind and fostered with Chacho, found abandoned in Mexico and scared of everything. Together they helped each other; Chacho became Cookie’s eyes, she showed him how to play and accept human affection. Deidre exquisitely describes their relationship:
When you have a foster dog, you have to hold back on the big falling-down-on-your-knees kind of love that happens between dogs and people….We gently loved Cookie. We gave her as much healing as we could but held back. Chacho didn’t. He rushed into love, unaware that it could be lost. He fell into every moment with her. She made him feel safe and let him experience the dog joy he had lost in order to survive.”
Cookie never left her foster home, Chacho and Cookie live happily together with Deirdre and family.
Kindness and compassion shine throughout this artistic, profound book, and Jane Klonsky has expertly succeeded in creating what Edgar Degas said art should be able to do:
Art is not what you see, but what you make others see
A touchingly absorbing book that anyone who has had the privilege of loving a dog through their twilight years will relate to. It’s also a perfect reminder that we need to do as dogs do and cherish each moment of our existence.
Unconditional is published by National Geographic and available from all the regular places.
As well as reading the book, I highly recommend following the Project Unconditional blog and social media