Book Review – Woodrow on the Bench: Life Lessons from a Wise Old Dog, Jenna Blum
Woodrow on the Bench: Life Lessons from a Wise Old Dog
HarperCollins, 2021: 191 pp.
This review appeared in the 34th volume of The Briar Cliff Review.
In her fourth and most personal book, bestselling author Jenna Blum chronicles the final months of her black lab Woodrow’s life, as his health slowly declines. Dog lovers will immediately recognize the unique bond between Blum and Woodrow, in what the author calls, “the most durable love affair of my life” (6). The routines and daily minutiae of caring for Woodrow’s aging body, forces Blum to slow down, to be present, and to connect not just with her beloved dog, but with her friends, her neighbors, and a cavalcade of strangers pulled into Woodrow’s irresistible gravity. Through the heartbreak of losing her beloved companion, the human connections endure, giving us hope, and providing something like a manual for how to muddle through mourning and grief.
Woodrow on the Bench, like many memoirs, is about far more than just its subject. If Woodrow is the subject of the book, we could say that Blum is its object; she is changed by her overwhelming love for her dog, and by his steadfast love for her. Woodrow teaches his human to live in the moment, and to appreciate every day as a gift. Like a mantra, Blum repeats the words, “I am here and you are here, and it is a good day” (8).
As Woodrow’s health declines, Blum, despite her stoic midwestern principles, opens herself up to the people around her, “Sometimes, it seems, when you let people know what you’re going through, help arrives when you’re least expecting it, bringing you what you didn’t know you needed, in forms above and beyond what you’ve ever imagined” (61). As Blum struggles to give Woodrow comfort and time, those who care about her reach out – or rather, reach in – with food, kindness, and plenty of bacon and carrots for Woodrow.
Blum writes of the spontaneous communities that spring up around dogs, and of dogs’ seemingly magical power to ward off loneliness, “[W]ith a dog, you are always visible. And you are never really invisible at all: all you have to do to be part of somebody’s daily life, the fabric of a community, is show up at the same place every day, same time, and be present”(84). Woodrow, though, seemed to have an exceptionally strong gravitational pull, which Blum calls “the Woodrow effect.” Something about Woodrow drew people in and put them at ease. Blum writes about strangers, many strangers, who stop to pet Woodrow, and wind up sharing dog stories, and life stories with Blum.
At just under 200 pages, the book is a fast read, but Blum’s voice, friendly, funny, and wickedly smart, makes it hard to put down. Without intending to, I finished the book in a single sitting, with my middle-aged pit bull, Walter in my lap. Chapters alternate between month-to-month accounts of Woodrow’s progressing illness, and brief vignettes highlighting some of the tender, humorous, and rewarding moments from his and his dog mom’s lives together. From their first meeting in a playpen full of labs with “coffee-smelling puppy breath,” to horrific midnight “poopsplosions,” Blum draws us into the most intimate details of their shared life. The book feels like a long conversation with a friend, one that takes you on a journey full of laughter, tears, and everything in between.
Near the end of the book, Blum writes, “Every time a Woodrow memory hit me extra hard, I cried, and the crying hurt and gave me headaches, but I felt the memory itself was safely encapsulated, rising away from me in a balloon. It was what mourning was, the hard work of grief” (181). Though ostensibly about the loss of a beloved dog, Woodrow on the Bench encompasses the vast terrain of loss. Whether it is the loss of a parent or a pet, loss is loss. It is a singular experience that cannot be qualified or compared, but it need not be endured alone. In a time when connection can be hard to come by, Woodrow on the Bench is a balm for the solitary grief that ails us all.