February 2015 Review: Animal Magnetism: My Life with Creatures Great and Small, by Rita Mae Brown

~by Michele Gregoire

I am delighted to review another work of one of my favorite authors, Rita Mae Brown. This one, Animal Magnetism published in 2009, is nonfiction and autobiographical. The reader is introduced to Brown’s life story as it revolved around animals since her earliest childhood, and finds the book also to be a tribute to her mother, who taught her about the natural world, particularly the animals, and gave her a lifelong love and appreciation for nature. Brown has been especially enamored of fox hunting, the horses and dogs (fox hounds) that participate in the sport, and the foxes. Her entire life has been lived in the company of pets – cats, dogs, and horses. So this book is a journey through her life experiences with animals coupled with her own advocating on issues of concern and great importance to society regarding the natural world.

The book contains twenty-six chapters, an introduction, and a concluding acknowledgements section at the end. Each chapter covers the author’s experiences with particular animals in her life and moves chronologically, although she does take some liberties there and occasionally diverges into related tangents that may revert to a previous time. The style is casual and conversational. Brown gives to her readers lessons from her own life, peppered with references and parallels to religion, particularly Christianity. The Introduction provides an overview of what is forthcoming in the book and provides the reader a glimpse of the animal characters, such as the Catholic fox who lives near an Episcopalian fox and whose interactions remind the author of her own family. Browns writes, “This book is about the sweep and sweepings of a life lived close to nature and lived with deep respect and sometimes fear of earth’s other residents. I’ve looked a bobcat in the eye and recognized my better. I’ve come up on a bear and felt gratitude that he decided to run. I’ve paid my last respects to beloved hounds, horses, and cats with both sorrow and joy, and felt profoundly grateful that I could ease their passage into the beyond, something I couldn’t do for my own mother.” To close the Introduction, Brown states “If there aren’t foxes in heaven I don’t want to go. Of course, I may not be going anyway. I’m a bad Christian, but I’m too old to be a good anything else. Bad Christian or not, much of what I am is a result of a life with and close to animals. I hope this book does them justice, for they have done right by me.” I believe the book indeed does them justice.

Chapters have descriptive titles and a photograph including the animal subject. The first one, “Money Isn’t Everything – Love Is,” sets the tone for the underlying message that resonates throughout the work. Early chapters have much about the author’s parents, especially her mother, and her childhood experiences, all with reference to the animals in her life at that time. Towards the latter part of the book in “The Thrill of the Hunt” the author discusses her basset hounds who she was “pretty sure were Catholic.” In fact, since Brown reveals that she grew up in a Catholic family (non-practicing, yet she does mention missing mass when sick in one of the last few chapters which suggests she may have rekindled that religious practice), the religion is occasionally referenced in relation to the various animals.

Brown describes her relationship with Sneaky Pie, the tabby cat and her business partner who inspired the Mrs. Murphy series, in the twentieth chapter (“A Bicycle Built for Two”). We learn that the author adopted Sneaky Pie from the ASPCA on October 4, the feast of St. Francis, during the 1980’s. She lived to be almost 20 and her successor (Sneaky Pie II) is another tabby look-alike named Ibid. This relationship launched Brown into an extremely successful writing venture in genre literature that has persisted for nearly three decades. The author says that the cat’s view of the world that she writes is as accurate as she can manage without being a cat. Having read every one of the Mrs. Murphy series I can attest that she has done an admirable job and represents well the wisdom of cats, dogs and every other species that are characters in her books. This is in no small way, I’m sure, due to the fact that Brown’s muse has been a cat for years!

So many experiences with animals are recounted in Animal Magnetism. Work with cats, hounds, horses, and the foxes led to the author’s deep understanding of each species and has reinforced her love for creatures. She discusses human civilization in the context of animal behavior and social interaction and finds numerous parallels, but largely observes that animals are more honest and true to their natures and that we can assuredly learn from them. Natural consequences teach and reinforce behavior, but Brown observes that responsibility for our actions has been largely absent in human society for the past forty years. The author rightly discredits the idea that animals don’t have feelings or compassion, which some people still believe and can lead to maltreatment or abuse.

An avid fox hunter, Brown gives plenty of instruction on the practice within and throughout the book. For example, in our country foxes are not killed but are chased. So, the author takes care of the foxes, putting out high protein feed for them in the spring to ensure great chases in the fall.

In the final chapter the author’s thinking is crystallized into philosophical and practical considerations that we should learn from the animals. She says we need to rethink our relationship with our sentient creatures, let them be but also learn from them. “Basic survival concepts: Don’t breed past the food supply. Always, always protect the female. Don’t waste.” Further, Brown reminds us that “Animals rarely commit the mistakes we do, which is one of the main points of this book. If we respect them, observe, and learn from them, we will commit fewer mistakes.” The book ends with a hopeful message of unity – we are in this life together and we need each other. And, Brown reminds us in her concluding sentence, “Remember: we left Eden, they didn’t.”

So much of what Rita Mae Brown writes reminds me of a good homily. She drives home biblical points in the language and experience of today and makes us appreciate creation, while warning us of the consequences of our behavior. But mostly, her words are a pleasure to read and her message is always one of love and deep resonance with creation stewardship and the Franciscan path.

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Dr. Michele Gregoire has been Chair of the Education Department at Flagler College since 2004 and a member of the faculty since 1988. She came to Flagler College from Georgia College in Milledgeville where she had been Director of Music Therapy for four years and prior to that she spent one year in the same capacity at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. Dr. Gregoire earned her bachelor’s degree in Music Therapy at Florida State University, her master’s degree in Music at California State University at Long Beach, and her doctoral degree in Special Education at the University of Florida. She has conducted research and published articles related to music therapy and special music education, consistently maintains a strong record of professional conference presentations, and her current interests are historical research in music education, special education, and music therapy.

Dr. Gregoire has been involved in several professional organizations throughout her career, and has served in leadership capacities in most of them. She worked for ten years as a clinical music therapist and director of internship, specializing in developmental disabilities, at the beginning of her career and continues to provide consultation in both music therapy and special education to individuals and organizations.

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