by Glen R. Blackwood | RGS & AWS Regional Director of Development
“Appalachian Grouse Dog”
Authors: Dennis LaBare, Bill Horn, Helen Stacy LaBare
Forward by Steve Smith
Illustrations by Gordon Allen
Published by Catamount Press 2021
Retail Price $34.95 ISBN: 978-62006-484-9
Wednesday afternoons were special in my childhood as that was when my mother toted my sister and me to the local library. Most Wednesdays, as we stepped off the school bus, our family’s chestnut-brown station wagon was running, and she was waiting at the end of the driveway. My mother, Nancy, was a high-strung lady who had little time for lollygagging, especially when she had a task at hand. No time for afternoon snacks; sometimes, we barely had time to jump in the back seat and close the doors before she had the Chevy in reverse. Waiting for seat belts to be fastened was not required, as the library was just one of her mid-week tasks. Where else we went depended on her mood and needs, but the library was always our first stop. She was strict, and her rules were to be abided. We each were allowed to pick out one, and only one, book that she approved. We could only read it at home after school, and it had to be finished by the following week. There were no renewals and if you forgot your library card, well, no book for you! As an elementary-aged child, the rules seemed draconian; only she put them in place to instill lessons that have remained beneficial. Most weeks, I had my choice finished by Sunday evening, impatiently waiting until Wednesday. Then an exciting event happened; I found a book that contained not one story but two. The two-volume set, if you will, contained two common-themed stories from two different authors. I prayed she wouldn’t recognize this two-for-one trickery, and she didn’t immediately. Only as I was finishing the second tale in the car for its return the following week did she comprehend I had stretched her one-book rule.
This memory resurfaced as I read “Appalachian Grouse Dog: A Boomer’s Memoir,” only this title has an added bonus over my childhood selection. This hardbound title contains three unique stories told in three individual perspectives and voices, each pertaining to a white and orange Belton-bred setter named Cokesbury’s Commander.
As I read and reread this book in preparation for this review, “candid” and “honest” were the words most scribbled in my notes, as these, in my view, aren’t just hunting dog stories, although there are enough points, flushes and shots to describe it like that, and be enjoyable to those who are searching for that style of reading. This is, for better or worse, a love story. Written not only to help conservation, as the author’s proceeds benefit the Sportsman’s Alliance but also as a cathartic tribute to an English Setter that provided an opportunity for personal growth, recovery, friendship and long-term happiness.
Each author develops a different view of Commander and their own life to the reader. In the first section, Mr. LaBare tells his boyhood story: his early introduction to ruffed grouse through an episode highlighting a family member from Maine on the American Sportsman television show hosted by Curt Gowdy. I remember as a boy sitting on our sofa Sunday afternoons with my grandfather and dad, watching the same program on a small black and white television with rabbit-ear antennas. He also candidly breaches the mistakes and near misses he had with a dog he affectionately calls “puppy.”
The second section is Mr. Horn describing Commander’s development, Dennis’ naivety as a grouse dog owner and his sense of loss in personal and gun dog matters. His frankness in this section is refreshing and a tribute to their friendship, intertwining training tidbits while telling of Commander’s development.
The last section voiced by Helen Stacy LaBare describes Commander through his hunting prime and final years. The passages, from a final hunt in West Virginia to lazy walks and pointing birds in Maine, combined with a doughnut treat, and how this dog brought forth a marriage between “Den” and her, are heartfelt and passionate.
In this book’s afterword, Mr. LaBare quotes lyrics to the Eagles tune “Hotel California.” Reflecting on this song and the lyrics caused my mind to imagine this book also as a song. A folk ballad of hidden places, heartache, triumphs, love and loss. A three-part harmony, whose authors’ voices blend beautifully, singing about an Appalachian English setter named Commander. Adding to this harmony is a forward by noted sporting writer Steve Smith and illustrations by Gordon Allen. As are the coverts in the Appalachians, the voices I hear and the voices I read are tight and harmonic.