The Incredible Journey, by Sheila Burnford, was first published in 1960.
When I thought about a book I loved as a child, this was the first book that came to mind. I don’t remember how old I was when I read it. I don’t remember if I’ve seen the Disney movie adaptation. Back then, I most likely borrowed it from the New Orleans Public Library bookmobile that parked next to the gas station across the street from the U-tote-M. I’m fairly sure I’d read it only once, until now.
John Longridge is a bachelor who lives in the countryside of Ontario Provence, Canada. He’s a writer. He lives a quiet, solitary life. Mrs. Oakes and her husband, Bert, live nearby and take care of Mr. Longridge’s house – the gardening, cooking, repairs, and so on.
Eight months ago, Jim Hunter, a friend of Mr. Longridge, had accepted an invitation to deliver a series of lectures at a university in England. John agreed to watch the Hunter family’s pets – a Siamese cat named Tao, an elderly English bull terrier named Bodger, and a young Labrador retriever named Luath – while they were away.
The Hunters will be returning in three weeks.
John Longridge is leaving at seven in the morning, for a trip to Heron Lake, where he and his brother own a hunting cabin. Mrs. Oakes and Bert will look after the animals, but won’t be able to come over until nine.
Before he goes to bed, John writes a two-page note for Mrs. Oakes, with a grocery list, and explaining that he’d be taking the dogs and the cat (second page) for a run before he left.
The cat accidentally knocks the note off of the table, and the second page lands the fireplace.
In the morning, John takes the animals for a run, packs up his car, and drives off, leaving the dogs and the cat in the yard. (They always stick close to home without supervision.) After twenty minutes or so, the young Labrador suddenly walks down the road. The Siamese cat and the English bull terrier don’t know where their friend is going, or why, but follow.
Mrs. Oakes arrives and finds an empty house. At first, she assumes that the animals were off for a walk to the nearby school. Then she finds the note Mr. Longridge had left her. She thinks it extremely odd that he had suddenly decided to take the animals with him, after making the arrangement for her and her husband to watch them, but eventually accepts this change of plans.
Something is telling the young Labrador that he must go home, and that home is to the west. He’s not going to go home alone. He’s going to bring the cat and the old dog with him.
The three friends make an incredible 300-mile journey west, across the Canadian wilderness. They meet wild animals, find food with their limited skills, deal with the harsh environment, and encounter friendly humans along the way. They’re house pets, so surviving is not going to be easy.
They manage to survive a collapsed beaver dam, an unwise attack on a porcupine, an aggressive farm collie, and a separation.
Meanwhile, John Longridge and Mrs. Oakes realize their misunderstanding, and begin a frantic search for the lost pets.
One thing I loved about this book, this time around, is that the dogs and the cat are not at all anthropomorphized. They are allowed to be animals, acting on instinct and motivated by hunger. It’s refreshing. They don’t talk to each other in English. They don’t understand what humans are saying, other than the basic commands they’ve been taught.
The points of view shift throughout the book. We, the readers, are told more about the humans than the animals understand.
The Incredible Journey is a children’s novel, with some scary scenes in it – the vicious, bloody fight with the collie, for instance. It’s an episodic adventure that moves quickly from one scene to the next. The characters (human and animal) are interesting, but not too complex.
The copy I borrowed from the library is nicely illustrated by Carl Burger.
- A book you loved as a child
(I book I loved now, as well)