A Dog’s DNA, Part 2

Photo credit: umseas on VisualHunt / CC BY


In Part 1 of this blog series, I considered the state of things before receiving our dog Ethan’s DNA test kit results, including some guesses as to what those results might show.

A reminder of why we care, whether or not we should: “Dogs vary in size, shape, color, coat length and behavior more than any other animal” (Weber Shandwick as cited in ScienceDaily, 2008). As our best friends and family members, dogs’ unique physical variations naturally pique our curiosity about which parts come from which sources.

In this post, I reveal the results and discuss the aftermath of our dog’s DNA analysis. Some things haven’t changed, and some will never be the same.


DNA Denial

They don’t believe it. They say it can’t be. They’re incredulous about what lies beneath the surface—the surface features of our dog, that is. Reasons in the unbelievers for their disbelief may involve the following:

  1. Aversion to a fact due to prior negative associations
  2. The intractable human tendency to believe only our eyes
  3. Simple unmet expectations

Then, there is the plain fact that genetics is a complex science with equally complex social and cultural implications.

But what exactly is so incredible? And am I a true believer by contrast?

  • Unbelievable: The breeds represented in—and missing from—our dog’s DNA.
  • Me: Ever the skeptic but open to possibilities. (Just see this blog’s About me page.)

In short, “I want to believe,” but like Fox Mulder of The X-Files, my fatal flaw would be to believe that “the truth is out there” when, actually, the truth that matters most is in here, in me, when it comes to my family, which includes my dog.

Facts are not truth, and especially not absolute “Truth.” They can only inform–and only if we let them. These particular dog-related facts are the result of scientific research, the genomic analysis of the DNA from my dog’s saliva.

And it’s no easy science for us lay people to grasp. From terms like “genotype,” “locus,” “phenotype,” and “allele” to phenomena “wolfiness,” “paternal haplotype,” “genetic age,” and the diverse functions genes have in an organism, it’s a lot to unpack. DNA analysis piles on thousands of data and facts to sift through if we have any hope of reaching some larger truth that relies on it.

“Ethan, what are you?”

The bottom-line fact for my family is that our dog isn’t what any of us thought he was. Sure, he’s still a dog and a best friend. But his breed make-up was definitely a surprise to everyone from the immediate family to dog-owning friends to his foster mom to our dog trainers. (I haven’t informed the vet yet.)

But really, I’m not so distant in my reactions from the more staunch non-believers. I look at my dog, and I look at these breed photos, and I think, “I don’t see any of that in there.” I can’t blame them for doubting the science; I am not without doubt. But then, the results are not without holes, remaining questions, and uncertainty, anyway.

We thought we knew . . . some things.

A fact and a truth as old as dirt is that appearances can be deceiving. The fascinating thing is how many different kinds of applications that truth really has. It’s not just our eyes that lie to us, though. It’s also precedent, accepted practice, tradition, conventional wisdom, emotional denial, and the assumptions of what we thought was “common” knowledge.

Specifically, the precedents and traditions that form convention tell us what certain dog breeds are supposed to look like. Then, common belief tells us we can identify mixed breeds by using our eyes and memories to link aspects of physical appearance that we see with our understanding of breed types.

From novice dog owner to seasoned dog trainer to veterinarian, dog shelter manager, and animal control warden, people interested in canines tend to think we know which breeds are most likely present in a dog of mixed breed heritage simply by looking at the creature before us.

But, man, are we wrong. So. Very. Wrong.

No one likes being wrong, even when we claim we’re only guessing. We like to think we’re well qualified to chime in, even if we’re not quite experts. We like to think our contribution is helpful, informative, unique perhaps, even if we give it off the cuff. We like to be right, and we certainly hate admitting when we’re wrong.

In light of our stubbornness, I think I need to say it again so we have some time to get used to the idea: We’re frequently and very much wrong when it comes to identifying dog breed mixes by sight alone–without registration papers or knowledge of a dog’s both male and female parentage. Part 3 of this series will explain exactly why this is so.

Science can provide answers, but it can also raise more questions than it answers. The journey to discovering my dog’s breed ancestry is one such case. Like it or not, the issues take some unpacking, along with a healthy dose of patience and humility.

So, as a matter of curiosity and entertainment, and maybe some education and insight, in this post, I’d like to share our dog’s DNA results, our reactions to them, and some reflections on their implications. First, a caveat.

Three Key Points

I believe it’s important to keep three key points in mind while digesting all of this.

1. Time, tradition, and cultural rituals have shaped and fixed our conceptions of dogs, dog breeds, and their relationships with people and each other.

2. Prejudice for or against certain dog breeds, like human-focused prejudice, has some basis in fact, some in cultural tradition, and some in outright misconception influenced in large part by pop culture stereotypes and the media. Deny it if you wish, but none of us is free of harboring some kind of racism–whether our focus is human, canine, floral. . . .

3. The meaning of anything can be highly personal, and meaning should be informed by more than one factor in life–such as reason, emotion, dreams and goals, research, study, established scientific fact, the mysteries of nature science has yet to uncover, and the practical demands of living.

With these thoughts in our back pocket, let’s consider the results and implications of one dog’s breed mix analysis and other DNA details, as well as my family’s and my reactions to them.

My Guesses

If you read Part 1, you’ll see a bit of conjecture as to my dog Ethan’s possible breed ancestry. Although I labeled it a “hypothesis,” that’s really a misnomer, suggesting a degree of scientific method I did not apply. Instead, what I’ll now call my “guesses” from Part 1 came down to the following:

"If I were to pick the largest number of possible ingredients 
going into the oven that made my dog, it would include 
but perhaps not be limited to:
Vizsla
Labrador retriever
German shepherd
springer spaniel or Brittany
Doberman
Dachshund
and some terrier blend

"If I were to pick the smallest number of possible ingredients, 
it would include one of the following:
Vizsla, German shepherd, or
Vizsla, Labrador retriever, or
Vizsla, retriever (non-Lab)"

DNA Analysis Genetic Breed Results

Here are the actual DNA breed results from Embark.

"Mixed Breed

24.2% Rottweiler ["Rotti"]
24.1% American Pit Bull Terrier ["Pittie"]
17.4% German Shepherd Dog ["GSD"]
6.2% Doberman Pinscher ["Dobie"]
28.1% Supermutt

"What's in that Supermutt? There may be small amounts of DNA 
from these distant ancestors:
Collie
Golden Retriever
Boxer
Chow Chow"

See the full Embark DNA analysis results on Ethan’s public profile: embk.me/ethan5. They include a brief Summary, Genetic Breed Result, Genetic Stats, Breed Mix Matches, DNA Breed Origins, Family Tree, Traits (physical), Maternal Haplotype, and Paternal Haplotype. Good luck! It is fascinating. The only parts not included in the public profile are Research (additional surveys we took about Ethan), Health, and DNA Relatives.

Initial Reactions?

Number 1: Surprise.

Ethan, December 2017

The biggest surprise? I think it’s a tie between his having no measurable trace of Hungarian Vizsla and the prominence of Rottweiler and pit bull in his blood.

Some of my guesses involved the right idea: GSD, retriever, Dobie, some terrier due to size. But actually, the Rotti, though stocky like the rest of the identified breeds, is medium-sized, too.

Nevermind that we originally set out to look for a Vizsla as our pet dog.

Nevermind that the rescue organization we adopted Ethan from advertised him as a “Vizsla/Lab mix.”

Nevermind that everywhere we go at least one person asks, “Is that a Vizsla?”

Nevermind that we’ve been answering everyone with “Yes, we think he has some Vizsla in him.”

He’s not a Vizsla. Not even close. He may not even have any trace of the breed in him at all, and we’ll probably never know one way or the other. Bye-bye, Vizsla fantasy.

Family Reactions

Number 2: Alarm.

For some of my family members, learning that all these powerful breeds historically used for guarding, protection, police work, attack, and fighting come together somehow in our dog was more than a surprise. It was alarming. Their images of the Rottweiler, pit bull, German shepherd, and Doberman are not of friendliness, safety, or even “goodness” in a dog. These breeds, at least some of the time, are seen as mean, vicious, predatory killers, barely controlled by their owners and often used for nefarious purposes.

Hollywood, the media, and traditional breeding have all played a role in forming this stigma. Although the guarding nature of these dogs, such as the Doberman, can be used for comic relief, the premise is always that the breed is formidable, imposing, even monstrous. Films like Up and ’80s TV shows like “Magnum P.I.” play up the alpha dog image of the Doberman, the pet of the eccentric, wealthy elite and the animal antagonist that terrorizes the hero in the story. 

Rottweilers can be associated with the junk yard and cartoons where the dog is tasked with keeping out pests and trespassers. In the ’80s cult classic film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the Bueller family Rotti rips the trespassing principal to shreds in his meddlesome pursuit of the truant Ferris.

As the breed most commonly used for K-9 police units, German shepherds sniff out drugs, guns, bombs, and dead bodies, and run down and subdue crime suspects. High energy, fierce looking, and powerful, they’re the bad asses of the law enforcement sector.

Little needs to be said about the nasty reputation of the pit bull, though, like all these others, it is grossly misrepresentative and extremely unfair. See the more fitting profiles of the pit bull in a later section and at the bottom of this post.

None of these dogs is portrayed as an obedient sporting, sprightly terrier, or lap-dog toy breed character. They’re not seen as playmates or accessories. They’re seen as dangerous and downright scary–creatures, not dogs, always to be avoided. 

Influence of Personal Experience

It doesn’t help that my parents have negative associations with at least one of these breeds. My brother was bit in the face by a German shepherd at age 5, and my mother for one has been afraid of them ever since. My mother-in-law was bitten by a dog, though not one of these breeds. My father-in-law doesn’t like pit bulls at all, and he’s not alone, but he has a special bond with our dogs and other pets any time they interact.

While not necessarily afraid of them, my father was the one who pointed out how our culture has conditioned us to fear these and other specific breeds. People who do not currently own and never owned dogs will more easily tend to fall victim to those stereotypes in their interactions with dogs. My husband did not grow up with dogs as I did, so he is more tentative around less familiar dogs than I tend to be, but only mildly so.

Number 3: Rejection.

Even after I attempted to explain the results, my in-laws emphatically declared, half in jest, “We don’t care what the results say. We’re saying he’s a Vizsla.” I had nowhere to go from there, so I accepted it with a smile and a “Fair enough.”

If the details or reasons for the results don’t matter to others, you can’t change that; nor can you imbue anyone with curiosity they just don’t have. We all have our priorities of what to focus on. But I can try to satisfy my own curiosity, and I wanted to try to understand. So, since I started this blog series, I decided to do my best to bring it to some meaningful resolution.

My Personal Reactions

Number 4: Confusion.

Absence of the Vizsla breed in my dog, though admittedly a little disappointing, hasn’t been the main issue for me. Likewise, I don’t have a problem with these breeds in the mix. With the influence of Cesar Millan’s Dog Whisperer TV show, reading about raising and training dogs, and substantial lay research about dogs in general, I’ve long held positive views of just about every breed of dog. So I don’t carry the same degree of typical prejudices held by others.

For me, it’s simply hard to see in my dog what the DNA results claim about his breed mix and the likeliest associated character traits and behaviors.

There are important scientific and societal reasons for this that you won’t want to miss later on. See Part 3.

Meanwhile, let’s get to know the breeds in Ethan’s genetic mix.

Enter Research.

The Rottweiler (24.2%)

After popping in and out of all the linked question marks on Embark’s results package, one of the first additional things I did was find out more about Rottweilers.

Looking for similarities primarily, as opposed to differences, I discovered I could see some Rottweiler traits and behaviors in our Ethan. These include:

  1. intelligence–Ethan learns faster than I do in agility class, that’s for sure.
  2. stubbornness–This often goes hand in hand with smarts.
  3. food orientation–Ethan is nothing if not food driven.
  4. strength and physicality–He’s also pretty strong and can play rough at the dog park.
  5. lounging preference–Ethan can be a lazy boy, too, preferring the cozy indoors to especially wet conditions outside.
  6. lack of barking–Our dog hardly ever barks.
  7. direct eye contact–I suppose he often looks me in the eye. . .
  8. athleticism–Ethan jumps, climbs, leaps up onto neighborhood boulders, picnic tables, and utility boxes–all with our initial permission when he was a pup; he loves turning corners, running through tunnels, jumping hurdles, and running faster than every other dog at play. Source consulted: “11 Facts Rottweiler People Understand Better Than Anyone”

Consulting just one source on this, I found that Ethan matches up with Rottweiler behavior in a solid 7 of 11 traits, which are only general tendencies and, as with all breed traits, do not apply to every individual of that breed.

The ones he lacks from that list are lap dog behavior (prefers to lounge alone), loyalty to the point of guard dog behavior (he’s as eagerly friendly and mild as they come), and carrying the stigma/responsibility of being an obvious member of the breed (he really looks nothing like a Rottweiler).

He’s also deferential enough not to stare us down, though he can make eye contact frequently. He’s strongly bonded to me, but he’s still not entirely comfortable being invited onto the couch since we initially taught him not to go on it, or even having us lie down beside him (he gets suspicious), and he has shown no particular protective or possessive tendencies with either of us.

While this is only one source, it opened my eyes at least to the possibilities of similarity to a breed I was less familiar with and hadn’t considered during my concerted guessing period.

Physically, Ethan also has ears that seem to match in many photos I’ve seen of Rottweilers.

Despite these parallels, however, there is truth in the notion that all this is simply an exercise in finding what you look for–in this case, similarities. That’s called confirmation bias, a plague rampant in the media. What’s to say I wouldn’t find the same degree of similarity between my dog and ten other breeds? Speaking of other breeds . . .

The American Pit Bull Terrier (24.1%)

So, what about the American Pit Bull Terrier? Which of its typical behaviors match Ethan’s?

Thankfully for his relationship with people (including close family with fear of the breed), as with the Rottweiler, Ethan bears practically no physical resemblance to the pit bull or related breeds. However, are there behaviors unique to the pit bull that Ethan might exhibit?

The Embark description characterizes pit bulls as “sweet, talented, and affectionate.” Ethan has become more affectionate over time, gradually, but he did not start out all hugs and kisses with us. Ethan is sweet and talented, but these traits are so vague as to apply to at least a dozen other breeds or simply great individual dogs.

Embark’s description also says that pit bulls “enjoy the company of their family members” and “get along very well with children.” Both are true of Ethan–and lots of other dogs and dog breeds.

I was unable to use an American Kennel Club (AKC)’s breed description because American Pit Bull Terrier is not an official AKC-recognized breed. The closest related breeds in their database are the American Staffordshire Terrier (“Amstaff”) and Staffordshire Bull Terrier (“Staffie”). The key words associated with the former are “confident, smart, good-natured” and with the latter “clever, brave, tenacious.”

It’s the “bull” and associated traits that made the Staffie a good fighter. Even this minor shift in emphasis between the two breeds assures me that it would be faulty to compare breed characteristics to the American Pit Bull Terrier as a way of ascertaining from another source the breed “type” most likely represented in Ethan.

But based on the Embark details, we can still make some basic assessments: Unlike the stereotypical pit bull, Ethan thinks every other dog is his best friend, and he is not as high energy as most pit bulls I’ve observed. However, he can be pretty scrappy at play, and he does excel at agility, an example of pit bull versatility and talent. But again, pit bulls vary in behavior just as much as any other pure breed’s specimens.

So much for the pit bull. Despite its comprising almost a quarter of Ethan’s DNA, very little closely, and nothing exclusively, associates him with the breed’s visual–or purportedly standard behavioral–traits.

Other Breeds

Without swimming in the details, it’s a similar story for the German shepherd (17.4%) and Doberman (6.2%).

Photo credit: gomagoti on Visual hunt / CC BY-SA

Some traits line up; others don’t.

If you’d like details about any of the breeds identified in Ethan’s mix, including “Supermutt” estimated trace breeds, see the bottom of this post for a full set of breed profile highlights from Embark, American Kennel Club, and Westminster Kennel Club. See also my section below about the significance of the Supermutt component.

After receiving the results and learning more about the science behind all this, it was interesting and disappointing how the “a-ha” moments kept pace, neck and neck, with continued puzzlement.

Second Impressions: The Double Take

So why should these 4 breeds NOT dominate almost 70% of Ethan’s genetic inheritance?

Because, even going beyond the quick glance from Embark’s identified breeds to the creature we live with–and back, across man, it just doesn’t seem to stack up. Here’s why:

1. First, there’s his build.

The only breed named in his mixture that’s remotely close to Ethan’s body structure is the Doberman, which makes up the smallest percentage of definitively identifiable pure breed present at 6.2%.

Otherwise, he’s not stocky or broad-jawed like the pit bull, he doesn’t have the shorter muzzle of the Rotti or pittie, he’s not tall like the GSD or prick-eared like three-fourths of them, and, though several of them have deep chests, his rather high pelvic tuck matches none of them.

Instead, Ethan is lanky and wiry, slender even, with a long torso and bony butt, and, yes, he eats plenty every day. He’s downright petite. I’d sooner believe he had whippet in him than any of these four main breeds. Looking deeper, there may be some resemblance to the build of the collie.

Otherwise, the causes for his shape remain mysterious, at least to the same extent that other representatives in Ethan’s “Supermutt” DNA (beyond traces of collie, golden retriever, boxer, and chow chow), say, the other 15-25%, are themselves mysterious.

Go back far enough, if we really could, and you would think every mutt in Ethan’s ancestry has a pure breed ancestor. But it turns out that conception is wrong, too. More on original dog breeds later.

2. Second, that curly tail.

The only breed named in the mix with a curly tail is the chow chow. The tightness of the curl in Ethan’s tail more closely matches the chow chow than the more gradual curve of any of the other breeds’ tails. His tail shape is distinctive without a clear source, certainly not one source alone.

3. Third, his red color.

Ethan doesn’t have the coloring of any of these breeds’ standard versions that come to mind. Red is recessive, I learned from the trait science, but it was definitely a major factor leading us to believe in the Vizsla component. He also has a blond or buff undercarriage, underside of his tail and faint patch on his chest.

The only breed with a slightly stronger tendency in these directions is the pit bull, along with some of the breeds among the traces of retriever, collie, boxer, and chow chow that Embark supposes may be present.

4. Fourth, behavior.

Items 1-3 have to do with appearance, but we all inherit a lot more from our ancestors than just our looks. Off hand, the behaviors that strike me most about Ethan are his keen sense of smell relative to other breeds and his high propensity for scent tracking. I attributed these to some sort of hound breed in his DNA. What I did not think about during my guesses was how scent-oriented the German shepherd is. Caught me napping.

Behaviorally, Ethan sits like a Vizsla and is shy/sensitive like a Vizsla, but there isn’t much else I could point to in the Vizsla besides looks. Along with face shape and build, another reason I had ruled out pit bulls was muscle strength, but that’s hard to judge comparatively without owning other dogs, and Ethan is pretty strong in neck and jaw when we play tug of war. On the other hand, he routinely tumbles under the heftier charges of stocky dogs at the dog park. Note: My knowledge of the Vizsla breed profile comes from many sources beyond kennel clubs.

I might be one of the more easily convinced among my family members as to the veracity of the numbers, but seeing those numbers and reading the basic profile of each breed included in the results was not enough to settle my mind about match-up.

Even though I knew something about dog breeds already, the picture created by these results really didn’t look right, and searching for the reasons for them was the obvious next step.

I had to learn more if I was going to make sense of either the behavioral or physical appearance traits in the breeds the DNA says my dog Ethan contains.

Aside from identifiable breeds, the meaning of the Supermutt factor must also be considered.

Supermutt (28.1%)

Amidst the tendencies, likelihoods, prevalences, possibilities, and estimations inherent in this package of results, the largest variable of breed ID lies in the Supermutt designation. Obviously, this is not a breed but a label that shouts “no single breed dominates.” Not only that, at almost 30%, this component makes up the highest distinct percentage of Ethan’s breed mix DNA results.

Despite Embark’s guesses as to traces of breeds (again, see the bottom of this post for breed profile highlights) that could be present in this 28.1% mix of mixes, it really opens up the field of possible ancestors and the range of possible traits from those dogs. In so doing, “Supermutt” diminishes the potential influence on my dog of all of the first four breeds listed.

Conclusions? More Questions.

The results suggest their own decreasing significance for us. He’s a mutt, a highly mixed animal with no single dog breed making up who he is genetically. What more can be said? And where else in the results can I turn to find meaning?

As the picture complicates, it also distracts from the key points at this post’s intro. What can we really learn about pure breed prejudice through Ethan’s case?

The answers lie in answering the question, “How can a dog look so different from the physical breed traits of his genetic heritage?” And only the science can answer that.

During this educational process, I did gain clarifying insights, but I stewed about the breed appearance factors for quite some time afterwards. I would have to dig deeper to understand how a dog’s appearance and breed heritage can seem so at odds.

Not only the science but also the reason for the dissatisfaction really does beg for explanation. I mean, What gives? Did we waste our money? And how trustworthy are Embark’s science and report, anyway? 

Answering these questions will be the task of Part 3 of this post series. In Part 3, we’ll:

  • Learn why and how a dog can look so different from the physical breed traits of its genetic heritage.
  • Uncover what this insight means for visual breed identification of mutts when their parents are unknown.
  • Wrap up the series with an evaluation of our DNA analysis supplier, remaining questions, and final reflections.

Stay tuned!

See the full Embark DNA analysis results on Ethan’s public profile: embk.me/ethan5. They include a brief Summary, Genetic Breed Result, Genetic Stats, Breed Mix Matches, DNA Breed Origins, Family Tree, Traits (physical), Maternal Haplotype, and Paternal Haplotype. Good luck! (It is fascinating.)


Have you had your dog’s DNA analyzed?

What are your thoughts on all this?

Do Ethan’s results surprise you?

Feel free to share in the comments.


Sources Consulted and Cited

American Kennel Club. https://www.akc.org/

Embark. embarkvet.com. embk.me/ethan5

Finn, Maureen. (n.d.). 11 facts Rottweiler people understand better than anyone. The Dog People. Retrieved March 2019 from https://www.rover.com/blog/facts-rottweiler-people-understand/

Weber Shandwick Worldwide. (2008, June 23). DNA study unlocks mystery to diverse traits in dogs. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 27, 2019 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/06/080622225503.htm

Westminster Kennel Club. https://www.westminsterkennelclub.org/


Dog Breed Profile Comparison: Embark, American Kennel Club, and Westminster Kennel Club

Rottweiler

Embark description – “descended from Roman Molosser-type dogs” “one of the oldest herding breeds” “guarding” “protective . . . loving . . . loyal . . . can also show aggression if not properly socialized and trained” “Intelligent, energetic and loving” “short, high-shedding coat and a high tendency of drooling”
AKC – “loving, loyal confident guardian” “strength, agility, endurance” “robust working breed” “great strength” ” descended from the mastiffs of the Roman legions” “gentle playmate and protector” “observes outside world with a self-assured aloofness”
WKC – “medium large working breed with a strong willingness to please” “versatility” “originally designed to be an all-around farm dog” “endurance, agility, and strength” “compact, muscular build” “devoted companion”

German Shepherd Dog

Embark – “confidence, courageousness, and keen sense of smell coupled with notable intellitence” “heavy shedding coat that comes in both short and long varieties”
AKC – “confident, courageous, smart” “finest all-purpose worker” “large, agile, muscular” “noble character and high intelligence” “loyal, confident, courageous, and steady”
WKC – “highly intelligent, exceptional family dog” “willing companion” “enjoys endeavors of its owners” “herding and protection” “adaptability” “competitive in all performance activities”

Doberman Pinscher

Embark – “intelligent, loyal, and make for perfect companions as well as guard dogs” “a mixture of many different dog breeds that includes Beauceron, German Pinscher, German Shepherd, and Rottweiler” “very athletic and often excels in agility” “trainable and one of the top five smartest dogs”
AKC – “loyal, fearless, alert” “sleek and powerful, possessing both a magnificent physique and keen intelligence” “incomparably fearless and vigilent” “among the world’s finest protection dogs”
WKC – “an elegant athlet in a tight-fitting wrapper” “square, compact, muscular” “grace, beauty and nobility” “energetic and fearless” “an intelligent, affectionate, and obedient companion”

American Pit Bull Terrier*

Embark – “sweet, talented, and affectionate.” “enjoy the company of their family members” and “get along very well with children.”

* “American Pit Bull Terrier” is not an AKC- or WKC-recognized breed.

American Staffordshire Terrier

Embark – “fighter . . . easily managed . . . sweet, trusting disposition” “playful and people oriented” “stocky, muscular” “great strength” “grace, elegance” “generally playful and friendly” “showing affection to new people in the presence of their owner” “can be aggressive toward strange dogs” “protective nature if threatened” “intelligent, trained without much difficulty” “lively”
AKC – “confident, smart, good-natured” “courage proverbial” “loyal, trustworthy” “springy gait” “agile and graceful” “stiff, glossy coat” “keenly aware of surroundings” “game for anything” “lovable ‘personality dogs’” “like mental and physical challenges” “highly trainable”
WKC – “weight proportional to height” “loyal, trustworthy, courageous” “intelligence, strength and agility make him an excellent all-around dog”

Staffordshire Bull Terrier

Embark – “bull baiters, tenacity, aggression, intelligence” “stubborn” “really love people” “extremely social and loving” “enthusiastic and exuberant personality” “intense energy needs” “ability to get along with canines varies from dog to dog” “love of children” “’nanny dogs’” “strength and size . . . ideal for older children”
AKC – “clever, tenacious brave” “muscular but agile” “mild, playful with a special feel for kids” “sweet-natured, family-oriented” “true-blue loyal companions” “old fighting instinct lurks within”
WKC – “strength, intelligence, tenacity” “alert stance, big smile, wagging tail” “’affection for its friends and children in particular, its off-duty quietness and trustworthy stability’” “all-purpose family dog” “steady, dependable” “outstanding athletic ability”

Supermutt

Collie

Embark – “wonderfully loyal and intelligent family dog” “good looks and soft temperament” “popular among the social elite” “intelligent and quick to learn” “great athleticism, possessing great strength and speed” “sweet and friendly nature . . . loyalty and willingness to please” “not as energy intensive as the Border Collie” “otherwise quiet nature”
AKC – “devoted, graceful, proud” “famously fond of children” “swift, athletic” “thrive on companionship and regular exercise” “With gentle training, learn happily and rapidly” “loyalty, intelligence, sterling character”
WKC – “beautiful in temperament and body” “gentleness, intelligence, loyalty” “willingness to work closely to master” “exceptional with children” “devotion to family legendary” “primary focus on people” Rough = gatherer. Smooth – drover.

Golden Retriever

Embark – “hunting companion” “friendliness and intelligence” “generally lankier and darker than their British counterparts” “love of play and water”
AKC – “friendly, intelligent, devoted” “exuberant Scottish gundog” “great beauty” “serious workers at hunting and field work” “enjoy obedience and competitive events” “endearing love of life” “sturdy, muscular” “medium size” “broad head” “friendly and intelligent eyes” “smooth, powerful gait” “feathery tail carried with ‘merry action'” “outgoing, trustworthy, eager-to-please” “joyous and playful” “puppyish behavior into adulthood” “energetic, powerful” “enjoy outdoor play” “swimming and fetching”
WKC – “willing, adaptable, trainable nature” “ideal family dog”

Boxer

Embark – “a Molosser-type dog” “distinctive underbite and strong jaws” “bred as a fighter” “patient and spirited family dogs” “intelligence and energy of their forebearers”
AKC – “bright, fun-loving, active” “loyalty, affection, intelligence, work ethic, good looks” “bright, alert” “sometimes silly” “always courageous” “smooth and graceful, powerful forward thrust” “upbeat and playful” “patience and protective nature” “serious watchdog/guardian”
WKC – “highly intelligent, medium-sized, square, clean lines, balanced proportions” “bred from ancestors in Germany called Bullenbeisers” “fearless but tractable, energetic and wonderfully patient with children” “extremely intuitive” “responsive to his master’s moods” “ideal family dog” “boisterous and clownish” “cherishing toys and family into his oldest age”

Chow Chow

Embark – “an ancient breed probably originated from Mongolia or Siberia”
AKC – “dignified, bright, serious-minded” “muscular, deep-chested aristocrat” “air of inscrutable timelessness” “dignified, serious-minded, aloof”
WKC – “possessive nature” “hunting, herding, pulling, protection”

A Dog’s DNA, Part 1

Ourselves, Our Dogs

Who are we? What are we made of? And why should we care?

With the advent of DNA kit testing, the question takes on new complexity, but as with many new inventions, we may end up putting far too much stock in the science of self-identification.

I’m annoyed by the ancestry.com commercials showing people discovering their heritage and then drawing immediate conclusions about behavior, temperament, or what traditions they should celebrate, ignoring other possibilities DNA cannot explain.

For example, the guy who trades in his lederhosen for a kilt because he discovers he’s more Scottish than German. Ridiculous. If you have celebrated an existing ethnic tradition for years, you don’t need to change it because of blood line discoveries. And the woman who discovers her Nigerian heritage, though it’s one of the smallest fractions of her genetic make-up (the rest being white European), and automatically concludes that her inherent courage must have come from the Nigerian element.

Yes, white Europeans have a history of being selfish, imperialistic bastards and, yes, your Nigerian heritage may have been underrepresented and, thus, underappreciated, but I think behavioral characteristics and personality traits are less genetically driven than those profiting from genetic testing would like us to believe. Moreover, statistically, I don’t believe your courage is more likely to have come from the 17% component than from the 55%, to paraphrase the commercial’s numerical details.

As the age of social media has proven yet again, people are notorious for getting stupid about “smart” technology.

However, the fact that many DNA kits also test for health concerns helps to offset some of the folly in a process that involves and sometimes encourages faulty reasoning and false conclusions.

But what about DNA in dogs? Little boys may be made of snails and puppy dog tails, but what are puppy dog tails made of? And why should we pay to have the double helix of our dog’s genetic identity unwrapped?

Health and healthcare are a factor, but curiosity is probably the main driver. So, after receiving a coupon in the mail for one dog DNA service, we found ourselves investigating our dog’s ancestry. We know he’s a mutt, but many of his traits suggest, to me at least, that there’s a greater chance of high percentages of only a few breeds rather than lower percentages of a longer list. However, I base this belief on assumptions that are, in all likelihood, wrong.

Breed Standards, Rescue Ethics, and My Dogs

Four years ago, I wrote a post as the mom of our first family dog. In a critique of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, then in its 139th year, I confessed to the event’s power to draw dog lovers to the screen, but I was less than enthusiastic about the program’s style, approach, and canine eugenics-oriented purpose.

“A sucker for the mixed breed, I can’t help cringing inside at the sight of enthroned purity, even as I’m drawn to watching the Westminster Kennel Club 139th Annual Dog Show (2/16 on CNBC, 2/17 on USA). The more dog shows I watch, the more I want to watch, and yet, as each event wears on, so grows the sense that I’m watching a travelling circus freak show.”

From “The Perfect-Pooch Parade”

Neither my tone nor my comments improved much from there.

“I detest the way animal health and well-being seem to have been compromised long ago for the sake of handicapping aesthetics. Such tailoring has made Dachshunds and corgis prone to back problems, Shar Peis more likely to develop skin irritations, toys and some terriers so tiny and fragile as to break bones easily, and very large dogs subject to shortened lifespans.

Not to mention all the breed-specific genetic diseases of the organs and other inner workings. . . .”

From “The Perfect-Pooch Parade”

Looking back, though, I realize some of my views were unfounded and some comments unfair, that I didn’t understand the seriousness with which recognized professionals in the dog breeding industry preserve pedigrees and safeguard canine health. Genetic diseases derived from all the original cross-breeding, while still a problem in dogs, are largely perpetuated outside the spotlight of the show dog community, who hates those practices as much as I do: profiting from pure breed popularity using impure pedigrees, puppy mill facilities, designer breeds blended from the same, and so on.

It’s not all about perfection in the American Kennel Club (AKC), Westminster Kennel Club (WKC), and similar organizations. It’s also about perfect sustainability, which necessarily means ensuring really good health to perpetuate generations of good quality dogs, inside and out.

So, it is true that one of the purposes of dog shows in America and around the world is preservation of breed standard characteristics. But while this is similar to the goal of conservation of species in the wild, it is not quite the same. The domestic dog breeding ecosystem is almost entirely human generated, the benefits of registration are focused more on breeds than on the dog species as a whole, and the system is highly controlled by humans.

Excluding thoughts on my personal aesthetic preferences among dog breeds based on appearance and movement, other criticisms from the earlier post were equally valid.

“. . . As with any collector society turned obsessive, there is much to satirize.

“The meticulous, yet highly subjective nature of the judging of these animals as the best of the best in their breeds, groups, and shows not only flies in the face of common dog-owner instincts and preferences (for instance, the golden retriever has never won a best in show) but also, due to breed stereotypes, [overly] restricts people’s sense of the quality and value of any given dog as a pet.

“These factors combine both to weaken the genetic hardiness of dogs through excessive, subsidized, and poorly managed and imitated pure-breeding, and to warp pet industry, dog owner, and service provider perspectives of what constitutes a dog worth having.”

From “The Perfect-Pooch Parade”

In a word, it’s the snobbery that galls me most. This is not to say, as I suggested in the original post, that dog shows and breed preservation are a waste of time, and at least there is no cash prize for the handler, owner, or breeder winners of best in show. That would mar their purity of purpose. However, many rescue organizations hold exactly that view and worse in their distaste for the breeder community. The rationale of this kind of rescuer? “Why breed when there are already so many dogs that need good homes?” “Rescuing saves a life; breeding does not.”

As I’ve said, this view is a bit short sighted in terms of breed longevity and preservation, but it is the very specializing nature of the breed type that lies at the heart of what I see as an elitist mentality. Despite their deep love of dogs, breeders who might otherwise have rescued mutts, which are referred to, granted with some dignity, as “all-American” dogs at the dog show (agility only), won’t touch rescued animals with a ten-foot pole.

The peer and internal pressure of perfecting show performance, reproducing superior pedigrees, and gaining the reputation of owning the perfect dog for its breed leaves little room in house, heart, budget, or calendar for adopted dogs.

Pride and vanity in handlers, breeders, and owners whose dogs excel in competition also shift the focus away from breed preservation and onto the use of individual dogs to give humans status among their peers and fame in the televised show ring. As I said in the previous post, the competition becomes “more about the show-ers than the shown.”

One could argue that using dogs as athletes, workers, and even companions is just as selfish of humans as using them in conformation competition is. It’s true that we crossed long ago the line of exploitation with dogs, but some people push farther beyond it than others. And now, who knows all the system-focused uses dog breeders, both reputable and suspect, are making out of dog DNA testing?

Rescue organizations aren’t perfect either. In their desperation to save every animal in their chosen breed, variety, or circumstance, in hard economic times in particular, some rescuers can prove less than honest and straight dealing with prospective adopters. You think you’re getting one thing, and you end up with the likes of Elyse, our first family dog whose health and pain problems accompanied what we only later learned was a more advanced age than the rescue organization had portrayed.

In our case, the family of the rescue coordinator wanted to keep a puppy we had our eyes on for themselves as well, leaving us with fewer, more complicated options among adoptees. For breeders and pure breed seekers, the main issue with rescuing is that you do not know the history or family heritage of the dog you’re getting, which carries with it higher risk of behavioral and medical problems.

We believed we owned a rescued, presumably pure-bred Brittany a few years back, but given all her health problems, her miniature size, and other factors in our adoption, I would be much more curious to learn the truth of that assumption than I am to learn my new dog’s data. Elyse is buried in the backyard, and I’m not digging her up just to satisfy a curiosity that will likely result in greater anger at the situations that created her.

Now, with more joy and a lighter heart, I go in search of the pedigree of our current dog, Ethan. We did get our wish for a better situation with this second dog than we received with our first. After a rough first year of adjustment for all of us, Ethan has come through happy and confident. He is smart, healthy, mellow, young, athletic, just as beautiful as Elyse was, and also a rescue.

We have wondered about his make-up since we got him, sometimes going up to him and playfully asking, “What are you, Mister?” but he never answered. So we’ll get to scratch the itch with science. With help from family, we ordered a DNA kit, which was actually more expensive than the human kit some relatives ordered. Any day now the results will arrive.

Meanwhile, the dog show offers a chance to make some educated guesses as to his breed make-up. My current hypothesis follows.

“What are you, Mister?”: The Guessing Game

Ethan was advertised as a Vizsla/Labrador retriever mix, and the Vizsla characteristics are demonstrable. However, I’m not as convinced of the Lab content. He does have the oilier, coarser short-haired coat of a Lab on his back and tail, he sheds like a Lab, his skull shape bears some resemblance to a Lab’s, and his tail is Lab like when he’s relaxed.

But he’s also wirier, more aerodynamic, uninterested in retrieving, and less water friendly than a Lab or any retriever. Instead, he likes to sprint, climb, tear the stuffing out of animal toys, destroy rope toys, and rip cardboard boxes to shreds. He naturally scent-tracks very well, and he likes to sunbathe, avoiding water at every turn.

So, some of those facts changed, for me at least, Ethan’s advertised type from “Vizsla/Lab” to “Vizsla/??”. But I assume nothing at this point, not even the Vizsla content, seeing as I have recently how wrong owners can be about the heritage of their mutts.

First, Ethan came from the U.S. Virgin Islands, not known for its Vizsla strays. The islands tend to be much more rife with pit bull mixes, as one would expect. Ethan’s an anomaly in that sense. Based on the smidgeon of what we know of his background and the tiny bit that we can guess, it seems unlikely that he would also contain hound, though some characteristics suggest it.

Therefore, if he does have Vizsla in him, setting aside the Lab question for now, the most likely additional higher percentage group present in Ethan’s blood would be terrier, based on the more common incidence of terriers compared to hounds. In order to narrow that down further, I’ve been studying the appearance and movement of the sporting, working, and terrier groups prior to the best in show round of the Westminster competition this week. Admittedly, despite my prejudice against Ethan’s having Lab in him (too boring?), it is still possible that Lab or some kind of retriever or other sporting breed is present.

Second, if he does NOT have Vizsla in him, the mixture could be quite substantial and surprising. Behaviorally, Ethan’s actions say “hound” to me more than they say “terrier.” Keen scenting, lower energy, slightly less mischief, and legginess are strikes against the terrier group. On the flip side, smaller stature, slender limbs, and a curly tail together work against the hound group. Independent thinking/disobedience or orneriness is a characteristic of many terrier breeds as well as hound breeds, and although he is not bad in this regard, there is some stubbornness in Ethan.

All from the lay perspective, having no knowledge of minute genetics, and now that I’ve looked at them more carefully, I’ve ruled out the following previously considered possibilities as of this week:

  • among hounds: beagle (too thick boned), foxhounds (too stocky), redbone coonhound and other coonhounds (too stocky and tall)
  • among non-sporting: shiba inu (entirely wrong shape and coat despite similar coloring and tail curl), spitz breeds (entirely wrong shape, coloring, and coat despite tail curl)
  • among herding: most herding breeds, including the Canaan dog, despite its curly tail, except border collie and similar shaped medium-sized shepherd breeds
  • among terriers: most terriers, including the more common bull, staffordshire bull, pit bull (too powerful, wrong face shape, build), and all the large-headed, small-bodied terriers of the British Isles (too confident)
  • toy group: highly unlikely, hardly worth mentioning?

Still in the running to be part of Ethan’s DNA for me are the following.

Sporting breeds:

  • Vizsla – body shape, coloring, wiry build, narrow chest, deep-set chest, high pelvic tuck, ear shape, forehead/cheek wrinkles, crown shape, eye position and almond shape, pink/liver nose, sitting shape, tail thickness, musculature, cat-like paws, muzzle length/shape, athleticism, shyness/softness. Ethan’s traits NOT typically seen in the Vizsla: curly tail (usually docked), ample shedding, dark brown eye color (light, yellowish), oily medium-short coat (extremely short, sleek).
  • Labrador retriever – coat length/quality, tail, head shape, brown eyes
  • other sporting breeds such as Weimaraner (very similar to Vizsla), pointers (but half of the build is quite different), spaniels, though the coat is wrong (springers, Brittanys, but probably not cockers), and some retrievers, such as Nova Scotia Duck Toller, but due to its rarity that’s less likely; less so setters

Hounds:

  • Basenji – facial wrinkles, curly tail, overall size, sometimes similar coloring
  • Dachshund – more of an honorable mention since I have strong doubts; likely only a sliver (such as some part of his size and coat) if anything; shape is way off
  • less likely: sight hounds – too delicate and with much pointier, more slender heads and tapered noses with bulging side-set eyes, though Ethan has similar build and high stepping trot to some
  • even less likely due to rarity, despite physical similiarities: Ibizan hound, Pharaoh hound, Cirneco dell’Etna

Working, Herding:

  • Rhodesian ridgeback – mainly for their wrinkled forehead and squared crown in relation to the muzzle, along with short hair
  • Doberman and German Pinschers – eye position, sleekness, overall shape, face shape
  • German shepherd – coat only
  • some shepherds and border collie – actually rather unlikely the more I think about it . . . but I know genetics can be sneaky.

Terriers:

  • Manchester – similar to a Doberman in appearance but small
  • Parson Russell – face shape and he jumps rather high
  • maybe a bit of border terrier for face shape

Best guess from analysis assisted by WKC dog show and AKC website:

If I were to pick the largest number of possible ingredients going into the oven that made my dog, it would include but perhaps not be limited to:

  • Vizsla
  • Labrador retriever
  • German shepherd
  • springer spaniel or Brittany
  • Doberman
  • Dachshund
  • and some terrier blend

If I were to pick the smallest number of possible ingredients, it would include one of the following:

  • Vizsla, German shepherd
  • Vizsla, Labrador retriever or
  • Vizsla, retriever (non-Lab)

I told my husband we should take bets before the results arrive, but he declined. He knows I’d win, or at least come closest. (Spoil sport.)

Stay tuned for Ethan’s DNA results and our reactions to his pedigree!

Below: Ethan is less excited to solve the puzzle.

Directly related content:

All dog-related posts:

To a Haggis on Burns Night

It’s Burns Night, the traditional celebration of the birth of Robert Burns, Scotland’s most iconic poet. Often with a traditional Scottish meal, songs, and poetry reading, Burns Night is celebrated across the Scottish diaspora every year on January 25th.

Although I won’t be partaking in a Scottish meal (though I do love me some haggis . . . not really; it’s okay, but I prefer black pudding), I celebrate by sharing with you excerpts from Burns’ poem “Address to a Haggis,” written in 1787.

Related posts on this blog involving Robert Burns’ poetry, language translation, and definitions include:

As with those posts, I have done my best to add word meanings below for the Scots terms. Again I used the Dictionary of the Scots Language as my source.

However, dear students and enthusiasts, I leave you to analyze the first section of this haggis poem to your hearts’ content. Enjoy its text in full through, for example, the link found in a 2017 article about Burns Night from International Business Times. My primary source for the text of the poem is The Complete Poems and Songs of Robert Burns, a gift I received last year.

Address to a Haggis

Opening 3 stanzas

Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ the pudding-race!
Aboon them a’ yet tak your place,
                        Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o’ a grace
                        As lang’s my arm.

fa’ (v.) – fall
sonsie (adj.) – good, honest, lucky (said esp. of women)
Aboon (prep.) – above, higher than
a’ (pron.) – all
tak (v.) – take
painch (n.) – paunch, belly, stomach
tripe (n., adj.) – tall, thin, ungainly person; slovenly, gangling
thairm (n.) – gut or bowel
weel (adj.) – well
wordy (v.) – worthy
grace (n.) – grace-drink, taken at the end of a meal after grace is said
lang (adj.) – long

The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin wad help to mend a mill
                       In time o’ need,
While thro’ your pores the dews distil
                       Like amber bead.

trencher (n.) – round or square plate or platter of wood or metal (i.e., flatware)
hurdies (n.pl.) – buttocks, hips, haunches of humans and animals
wad (v.) – would

His knife see rustic Labour dight,
An’ cut you up wi’ ready sleight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
                        Like onie ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
                        Warm-reekin’, rich!

dight (v.) – clothe, deck or adorn
onie (adj.) – any
reekin’ (adj.) – reeking

The next 3 stanzas share delicious language about competing for a portion of the food, defying foreigners to disdain their feast, and the unpleasant consequences after supper awaiting those who ate too well.

The last 2 stanzas frolic with the feaster as he makes his bloated way home until at last we see the final statement of haggis’s superiority to other refreshments, such as porridge and milk.

But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread,
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
                         He’ll make it whissle;
An’ legs an’ arms, an’ hands will sned,
                         Like taps o’ thrissle.

walie (adj.) – fine, excellent; big, strong
nieve (n.) – fist, grip
whissle (v.) – spend? (as in explode?)
sned (v.) – chop (off)
taps (n.pl.) – tufts, as of bird crest feathers
thrissle (n.) – thistle

Ye Pow’rs wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o’ fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
                        That jaups in luggies;
But, if ye wish her gratefu’ prayer,
                        Gie her a haggis!

wha (pron.) – who
mak (v.) – make
auld (adj.) – old
nae (adj.) – no
skinking (adj.) – pouring, pitcher
jaups (v.) – dash, splash, ripple
luggies (n.pl.) – small wooden dishes or vessels used in serving milk, porridge
gie (v.) – give
haggis (n.) – “A dish consisting of the pluck or heart, lungs and liver of a sheep minced and mixed with suet, oatmeal, onion and seasoning and boiled in a sheep’s maw or stomach.” (also used as an insult, a term of contempt for a person – blockhead, stupid)

And so, what is Burns Night to a haggis? Complete annihilation.


For a recipe and more information, see “What Is Haggis Made of?” at The Spruce Eats. Of course, Burns Night isn’t complete without bagpipes and whisky. Nae bother, we’ll be better organized by next January.

Happy Burns Night–and weekend. . . .

Speaking of weeks and ends, catch the Season 4 finale of Outlander, Sunday, January 27, at 8pm Eastern on STARZ. Episodes guide here.

Traditional haggis. Photo credit Reuters via International Business Times, UK, 2017.

Primary References

Dictionary of the Scots Language. / Dictionar o the Scots Leid. (n.d.). A database supported by the Scottish Government and hosted by the University of Glasgow. Retrieved from http://www.dsl.ac.uk/

Waverley Books. (2011). The Complete Poems and Songs of Robert Burns. Glasgow: The Gresham Publishing Company Ltd. pp. 194-195.

A Change Would Do Me Good

I’ve been putting off blogging. I’ve also been putting off Christmas shopping, house cleaning, writing of any kind, starting to read a new book (though I’ve been chipping away at Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir–incisive stuff) along with lots of other things I was already postponing indefinitely on my Remember the Milk task list.

I also forgot it’s almost Christmas in that I scheduled myself for a 9pm tutoring shift on December 20th without bringing something to do upstairs to my designated workstation while waiting for a request. Student needs are much more evident during peak hours and peak parts of the season, which means little to no waiting. Now, not so much. So, I journal, and it happens to work as a blog post. Fancy that.

I’ve been feeling more depressed than usual lately, dealing with the end of my potential to reproduce, a prolonged period of social absence and neglect, injury and illness in connected strings through the fall season, and general feelings of purposelessness. My thoughts are fragmented as I sink back into the lulling pillows of oblivion. Death is close at my heart, but life is elsewhere. A general weepiness follows me around these days. Blah, blah, blah. Pathetic. Woe am I, as that dead-horse thought turns putrid in my brain.

My primary care doctor and I are reluctant to dial up my antidepressants. She said she could recommend a therapist, but she couldn’t think of any good ones during my visit today who were not already retired. It is as if I am retired. Retiring. Too inclined to nap, avoid, escape.

I haven’t been to therapy in more than ten years, not that I wasn’t in head spaces that would have benefited during that time. I’ve seen no counselor or support group since my rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis, which became possible ankylosing spondylitis, which became generalized, or unspecified, spondyloarthritis (inflammation of the spine). At first, I tried to find a local group, but when that didn’t materialize, I admit it: I gave up. The extra pounds and serious mind load I carry also do my musculoskeletal system no favors.

Despite lingering doubts about my capacity to work full-time without exacerbating certain disease processes, I am ready for a change in work. I am ready to work more, and I would like more live human interaction. I am lonely and unfulfilled and without sufficient positive challenges to my mind and skills. I would like to tutor students in person as well as online, to start. It is something I may be able to break into with relative ease and a relatively shorter wind-up period than for other endeavors.

It’s raining and my husband plays indoor soccer while my dog snoozes, curling up with his nose tucked under his ankle and part of his tail. I continue to wait for a tutoring request. . . .

My dog is also clearly ready for me to spend more time away from home. If I’ve accomplished only one thing this year, that is “curing” my new puppy of separation anxiety/isolation distress. He can now stay at home with full access to the first floor for several hours at a time without fuss of any kind. Our diligence, research, and experimentation finally delivered the goods.

We must now continue to socialize him more often, but he’s made tremendous progress in becoming a happy, well-adjusted pup. He’s also not as skittish at home about allowing us to harness him up to go out. With our agility practice heading through its third series of eight weekly training sessions, life can open up for me beyond dog rehab and micromanagement.

Well, no requests so far, at 9:23. Looks like I may get paid for waiting time only, rather than session time. Usually by the quarter hour, something pops through.

At the very least, I’m thinking of redoing The Artist’s Way program starting in January, a dual-purpose source of therapy and regular writing practice. I am attempting to make get-together plans with friends as my in-laws prepare for their winter season in Florida and my parents prepare to spend Christmas in California with my brother’s family. My husband and I will join his folks at his brother’s house again this Christmas Eve for gifts and dinner.

I discovered the Edinburgh Advent Calendar on the Jacquie Lawson greeting card website late in the month, around December 13th, and I have been pouring myself into its gadgety distractions—games, activities, entertaining snippets about the town, and creative forays into various Scottish traditions. That bauble-smashing game is some nice, safe destructive behavior! I bought several of these calendars as gifts for loved ones, too. So what if we pile up a bunch of days in the second half of December? I’ll have to show my mother all the things I have discovered on it that she hasn’t had time to explore. Small flickers of happiness. Thank you, Jacquie Lawson team.

Mom and I attended our monthly book club meeting yesterday, having brought cookies to share from each of us. We had one newish member and eight established folks, including my friend, the moderator, and her husband. Very few of us really enjoyed Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, a collection of short vignettes of small-town life and its oddball residents. It wasn’t without merit, and I got through it, but it wasn’t a delight, either. Next up is Edith Hamilton’s tome Mythology. Perhaps that will prove to be a source of writer’s inspiration for me. I have much to learn of myth and legend.

9:40 Eastern and still nothing, even from the west coast. . . .

Outlander STARZ Season 4 has been good, but it’s not knocking my socks off as the 2018 San Diego Comicon moderator of the Outlander panel claimed it would. In truth, I’ve enjoyed the show incrementally less and less as the seasons progress. It’s similar to my experience of the books, but I still prefer the books, and I have books 5-9 still to read. Besides, I think my days of genuine obsession over Outlander are long past (though don’t hold me to that!), and I don’t need more of that kind of distraction away from literature, poetry, teaching, writing, and truly living, anyway. I plan to continue dabbling in the books and the TV series on this blog, but I’m interested in too many different things to make it about them exclusively, as my posting history attests.

I’ve also been eating a lot of M&M’s, and it’s showing on my skin. I’m getting that intermittent, ruddy halo rash around my chin (I think it’s the chocolate) and breaking out a little elsewhere. Most of the gifts we’re buying are coming from Amazon, as has become our holiday trend, but I went grocery and stocking stuffer shopping tonight at least. I still have to hide a few of the stuffers I bought: gourmet candy canes and some Pez dispensers for hubby and me. (I’m fairly confident he won’t read this post at all, let alone before December 25th, so no spoilers. Although, frankly, I don’t care much whether surprises are spoiled or not. Gift exchange at the holidays has become a cold, calculating arithmetic of off-setting each other’s expenses for gifts already bought, at least with my family. B’humbug.)

Finally, at 9:42 I had a request, and a brief, mighty fine live session with a 12th grader, proofreading a report. It’s not all bad, after all.

If all goes well, my husband and I will get together with my folks this weekend before I drive them to the airport on Monday, and we’ll have Christmas Day to ourselves after his family’s gathering Christmas Eve. Maybe we’ll catch a movie. Despite a few bumps and bruises, dog hair- and clutter-covered interiors, the aches and pains of aging, Ohio’s cold winter weather, and a chronic inflammatory condition, we can do all that. Our blessings really are legion.

Although I have no words of wisdom from this particular perch, or this hollow, I do wish you all a happy holiday season.

Book Review: The Good Earth

Book Review: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

book-cover_The-Good-EarthA fictional portrayal of the full life of a Chinese man from his start as a farmer to his death as a townsman still clinging to his farmland and its place in his heart, The Good Earth rarely wavers from the perspective of Wang Lung. Written in third-person point of view, the narration makes Wang Lung the central character from beginning to end. In so doing, the author delivers an unwashed, complex depiction of a human being who is very much a product of his time, his country, and his land while still being unique in his blend of naiveté, instinctual wisdom, hot temper, and abiding affections.

There is no happy ending, no comeuppance for moral wrongs done, no neat destruction or spectacular triumph. Just the steady, everyday hopes, aspirations, worries, resentments, choices, goodness, mistakes, successes, failures, moral decay, and general imperfections of a man making a living and raising a family in late 19th- and early 20th-century China.

The plot is less a plot than a complete time line of a life, but the story shares the journey through that life as lived by the main character Wang Lung. Although that journey may seem to lag in places, I interpreted those parts to be necessary components of the full picture of this character study, and the vast majority of the text never strays into tangents and never dwells on anything that is not relevant to the development of the character and his story. There is always something happening, something brewing, or something being reflected upon, but none if it feels indulgent on the author’s part. Nothing felt particularly extraneous; much of it felt very essential to a full portrayal.

The issue I take with the lagging parts is that the writing is not strong enough to support them properly. Overall, Buck is a great writer. The diction, rhythm and flow of the text keep the preponderance of pages turning. In part, the meandering quality of the prose effectively reflects the stream-of-consciousness thinking of our protagonist Wang Lung, which associates the book with other modernist literature. Written in the 1930s, The Good Earth, too, is recognizably a product of its literary moment. Still, despite these considerations, the applied technique does not escape tedium in its repetitiveness, which drags the novel down a bit.

Characters, even minor ones, never felt over-simplified. Buck had a knack for revealing personality in the sparest of gestures and shortest of lines. Some readers may disagree with this appraisal in light of Wang Lung’s sexist viewpoint, but his attitude is a reasonable revelation of context-bound character—true to both history and fictional integrity—not any kind of misogyny in the author.

Even the best of men in Wang Lung’s midst held the same foolish and limiting judgments of girls, women, and their places in Chinese society. A very strong current of Chinese culture is the favoring of male over female offspring, which persisted well into the late 20th century, with echoes even today through, for instance, high numbers of unwanted Chinese girls adopted outside of China.

Foot binding, seen in Western cultures as a barbaric form of female bodily mutilation and crippling, was common practice in making women attractive to male Chinese sensibilities. As in too many other societies of centuries past, girls and women were seen and used primarily as socioeconomic commodities and objects of male control and pleasure. To follow some misguided moral instinct of shame-based concealment into the erasure of these cultural imprints on Chinese history would have been not only false rewriting of history but also dangerous hindrance to modern efforts toward equality. How can the past be improved upon if it is not fully represented?

Yes, this is a thread in the depicted culture that reveals Wang Lung’s and his fellow men’s flaws and failings, but even a main character need not be morally superior to be worth writing and reading. The fact that their fates do not reflect a karmic meting out of justice does not make their characters any less flawed, but such neat justice might have made their lives less fascinating. The flaws make them human, and the getting away with it makes life unfair, which is eminently realistic. If reader ennui is the necessary result, I say so be it.

Furthermore, this is the story of Wang Lung, not the story of O-lan, his first wife, which means that Wang Lung’s perspective is uppermost in telling his story. Readers are free to take on the fan-fiction project of telling the same or similar period of fictional existence from O-lan’s or Lotus’ or Cuckoo’s or one of the daughters-in-law’s perspectives.

The question of whether any of the characters was likable is irrelevant to the evaluation of the book as a whole. I never need to love a character absolutely to follow his or her journey with curiosity and absorption. The need for a moral hero to champion is, in my view, a sign of unreached intellectual and emotional maturity in a reader. Such a reader either has not read enough traditional heroic tales to have outgrown or assimilated their appeal, or the reader utterly resists all semblance of the sharp, rough edges of realism, or both. This reader seeks literature to enjoy in an escapist, fantasist quality only. The trouble is that classic literature, often categorized as such through a solid foundation of many readers of balanced wisdom, is rarely, if ever, fodder for escapism.

The more pertinent literary question for me is how does any character relate to his environment? How does he express himself as a product of his environment, how does he navigate that environment, and how if at all does he transcend his upbringing and environment? By environment I mean all those people, places, and things that make up a character’s immediate sphere of influence and being influenced. On the other hand, too, how does a character relate to himself, transcend himself, or not?

Wang Lung is no great hero, but he is no great villain either. Yet this does not make his story a bland one at all. I found moments of great sympathy for him and moments of gritting my teeth and shaking my head at him. Perhaps it is a form of Stockholm Syndrome, but when a reader spends this much time with a character, a rising affection is understandable, regardless of the character’s goodness score. I found myself rooting for Wang Lung even as I waited for his punishments for wrongdoing, for there are worse moral actors than he in Buck’s story, just as there are better ones.

Moreover, Buck’s drawing of Wang Lung is wonderfully consistent and unapologetic in its nuanced results for plot and character. Although not a completely static character, Wang Lung possesses a frank incorrigibility and pervading tenderness worth loving.

There is relativism, and there is “it is what it is” and “que sera sera,” but The Good Earth never descends into this pit of simplistic judgment. In the end, the reader is free to wonder at the great changes that have occurred in Wang Lung’s life, family, and society by the time he comes to his passing. Glimmers of the wider cultural changes, in the words and actions primarily of his sons, peek through the closed curtains of Wang Lung’s singular, personal focus. At the same time, the proliferation of his family and his accumulation of wealth greatly change the needs and aspirations of that family.

The earth has been good and it has been bad for their livelihoods, but Wang Lung’s connection to the land is what is dying most with him. Even to him, however, the ground lost some of its sacredness well before he decides to move to town. The cultural and economic tides are turning under his nose and far from his sight almost his entire life. Perhaps it is the gradual nature of this change that makes the letting go less bitter and its long embrace less sweet in the reader’s eyes.

Ultimately, like so many, Wang Lung is a creature of habit and tradition. He rides the plow of these principles until there are none left anymore to work such an implement. New conveyances for new habits and traditions plant new roots for these transplanted people. While the fates of his family do not appear to be all bad in the end, Wang Lung sees the ceasing of earth works, or at least earth ownership, as the great tragedy of his legacy. However, there are worse things a family can come to, and they were coming long before the land’s primacy was ending.

In The Good Earth, the land begins and remains a powerful symbol of a simpler time of simpler pleasures, but like all things, the purity of the land’s beauty and the centrality of its importance throughout the story are always both real and illusory.


Reader Rating for The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
4.2 stars overall: 5 stars for consistent, unflinching characterization; 4 stars for vivid description and atmospheric setting; 3.5 stars for story and plot; 4 stars for prose; 4.5 stars for cultural, including literary, resonance


If you enjoyed this review, you may also like:

Book Review: War and Peace

Book Review: The Count of Monte Cristo

Outlander and Culloden: Finding Truth in Representation

Featured image: Claire & Frank walk Culloden Battlefield, grave markers center, memorial cairn right, Outlander Ep105, “Rent,” credit: STARZ/Sony Pictures Television

Warning: Possible spoilers from Voyager, book #3 in the Outlander series

The Heart asks Pleasure – first –
And then – Excuse from Pain –
And then – those little Anodynes
That deaden suffering –

And then – to go to sleep –
And then – if it should be
The will of its Inquisitor
The privilege to die –

– Emily Dickinson, 1890

On the cusp of our long-awaited Season 3 of Outlander STARZ, starting this Sunday in the U.S., some readers and viewers renew in their minds, if not through talk, the age-old debate over the quality of a show’s adaptation of the book it’s based on. But not me.

Since I have yet to enjoy a book in the series more than the first, this season’s treatment of book 3 matters less to me than those of the previous two books. By re-watching and closely studying Seasons 1 and 2, I’ve become accustomed to expecting improvements, surprising differences, and lackluster elements in adaptation, and I’m prepared to accept the show more fully on its own terms, independent from the books.

Admittedly, I found this easier after reading of Diana Gabaldon’s endorsement of Season 3, particularly in how closely it follows Voyager. But I never needed exactly identical details to cross the format threshold, anyway; the essence and soul of the story are what matter most to this fan. Besides, absolute mimicry would be both impossible and, if it were possible, a detriment to both book and show. The unique entertainment value of each would decline the more alike they became.

So I won’t be re-reading the book for the purpose of comparing and scrutinizing the show’s third season, and I advise both book and show fans to refrain from the activity as well. Any dipping back into the longest of the first three books for me will be piecemeal and most likely to satisfy curiosity or just enjoy reading.

As a fan who returned with her husband from an Outlander-focused Scotland vacation almost a year ago, my interests in the series relate more strongly to Scottish cultural authenticity, the romance of the saga’s milieu, and the richness of history permeating both series. The people, the places, the times.

During the latter half of our trip, we went to the Culloden Visitor Centre and Battlefield near Inverness and purchased a guidebook there. The impressiveness of the museum, enhanced by my familiarity with the Outlander series and Culloden’s role in it, and the sobering experience of walking the battlefield all made a deep impression on me.

Now I’ve been reading the gargantuan Tolstoy novel War and Peace since May, a month after my president bombed war-ravaged Syria. With lesser eruptions of political violence in my own country and North Korea’s recent missile launches escalating Kim Jong-un’s threats of nuclear war, the power and propensities of my government and others naturally darken my thoughts these days.

At the intersection of fiction and cultural history, then, my current and greatest interest in Outlander STARZ Season 3’s first episode, premiering this Sunday night, is their representation of the Battle of Culloden. With the formidable Sam Heughan leading the cast of Jacobite soldiers, making war look sexy is inevitable, but I hope a healthy dose of realism also accompanies the depiction—a rendering of the oft-obscured losing side of history and the consequences of that loss through the season’s first half.

Between the Lines

On the cover of Culloden, the National Trust Scotland’s official guidebook to the battle and field, appear two lines of identical length and thickness. Like railroad ties not on a map but in a picture, they recede at one end, seeming to reach forward and down to the right on the surface, toward some common point of interest—where the pages open. Separated by a word, their other ends point at diverging angles to the sky of the background image.

They nonetheless come from the map, these lines, the red above, the blue diving into the brown straw grass of the funereal field. A blue line, a red line, divided by a clash of cultures, red representing the government, blue the rebels. Blue underscores the beige Gaelic word “Cùil Lodair.” Red upholds the death knell in beige English type: Culloden.

Red rising into the sky, above the fray, above the dead grass of the haunted moor. Blue sinking into the nameless land of burial, of death from final battle in a year-long, lifelong, centuries-long conflict. A conflict said to have been between either English and Scottish, Highland Gaels and Lowland Scots, Jacobites and Hanoverians, or two peoples in a global power struggle for the imperialist upper hand. Shades of each dichotomy fall on the weathered pages of history, but, the guidebook says, none of these alone is strictly true.

So simple, these two little tracks of primary color. So complicated, turbulent, ironic, intriguing, and dark the history they bespeak. Separation, divergence, oppression, progress, strategy, integration, interdiction, imperialism, diaspora—such abstractions are some of the closest we can come to accurately labeling these mysterious, Hydra-headed developments. Mere words, single words, no better than colors, flags, or battle lines for explanation, inadequate to forge understanding.

The causes are many, serial, circuitous, and complex, rendering king, commoner, historian, novelist, and film-maker alike unable to capture fully the why, the how, and, to some degree, even what made this single battle, the Battle of Culloden, what it was. Despite its being the first British battlefield to see archaeological excavation, as with all of history, no one can ever fully know all of what really happened.

Story and History

Do the details matter? All of them? Every last moment, word, object, event, and item? Recorded history is never 100% true, just as works of fiction, even when not historically based, are never 100% untrue. One could also argue that history itself is an art form, not an exact science. Certain things such as names, events, and objects can be objective elements, fact. The rest is nearly, if not in some ways just, as subjective as the politics and fiction surrounding it. All lines blur at the intersection of life and its representation, where writers and readers or viewers connect.

What is war, after all, but a stamp of failure, the failure of people–clans, nations, and their leaders–to solve problems fairly, honestly, and peaceably? At best, it’s a self-serving grab for power and land, glory and good standing. At worst, fratricide, genocide, evil. Occasionally, it is a pure demand for deserved freedom, but that purity is never uniform across the hearts of those who fight. Generally, war is far less romantic than either fiction or history or current events media portrays, though some things do remain worth fighting for.

This was not my war that I should weep for the lost or for those still suffering its reverberations through the collective consciousness. So many conflicts and disasters are not mine, thank God, not ours, yet they merit no fewer tears. I am human and can empathize with my fellow humans.

To paraphrase Tolstoy from War and Peace, which I’m nearly finished reading, history is the habit of focusing on great leaders’ military conflicts as defining lands and their peoples, whereas it is the individual person going about everyday life, both in waging war and in tending to private affairs, that has most influence on a country’s fate. It is discrete human consciousness and conscience that matter most, not the “hive mind” of collectivism, of self-sacrificing glory and patriotic heroism.

In solemn honor, reverent pride, and moist-eyed commemoration of great public figures, military commanders, and extraordinary patriots credited with ingenious tactics, singular vision or instinct, and pivotal acts of bravery and skill, we write books, erect monuments, fill museums, name streets, and conduct ceremonies.

Yet the greatness of great leaders lies not in their human empathy, but in their ruthlessness, singular focus, and emotionless problem-solving skills. Commanders of armies, Tolstoy claims, cannot allow compassion, mercy—in short, human conscience—to cloud their tactical judgment if they are to be effective warriors. His example is Emperor Napoleon, but the principle applies equally to queens, colonels, dukes, generals, and princes.

It is regular people instead, Tolstoy argues, the common man and woman toiling anonymously and focused on their own lives and families—those who fight, suffer, bleed, and die not for a cause but as a matter of course—who deserve greatest praise and emulation. Better that each does for himself than for the public good; as a result, the public is better served.

Based on direct narrative arguments, characterization, and plot in War and Peace, I think Tolstoy’s belief in the importance of these actions lies in how they preserve people’s lives, loves, and souls. Let your life be a beacon so that others avoid the grandiose, power-hungry, cruel, machine-like, nationalistic, and imperialistic ambitions that only ever result in countless acts of evil.

It is this individual human lens on infamous past conflict that Outlander, too, affords us. In short, though it flies in the face of conventional military discipline, be like Jamie Fraser. Follow your prince as far as you can, and then when it’s clear the cause is lost, save your people if not also yourself.

Adoption and Adaptation

Although they’re neither my books nor my monuments, museums, or people, I attend the story. And why? Why do I choose to focus on this history and these people over others, including those one could say are more rightly mine? I cling with a sense of loyalty in having adopted threads of a culture not native to me. Why have I selected Outlander, its stories, and Scotland in which to invest my time, money, energy—in short, my conscious presence as an American?

Why did a science academic from Arizona, with no Scottish heritage and who had never been to Scotland, choose a 250-year-old version of that setting for her first novel? Inspired whimsy as much as anything else. An image of a Highlander in a kilt on an episode of Dr. Who pretty much started it all, along with the desire to learn how to write a novel “for practice,” one that became only the first of an international-bestselling series. In short, because she could, and excelled at it.

Now, in more than 35 posts, my blog explores Diana Gabaldon’s imagined saga and its Scottish origins.

The following can all be found through this blog’s menu tab “Outlander.”

  1. Scotland’s Burns and Outlander rival Shakespeare’s bawdy
  2. Adapted Bawdy Lyrics: Outlander TV Series, Episode 114, “The Search”
  3. Happy Poem-in-Your-Pocket Day!
  4. Response to Outlander Post, “Episode 115: ‘Wentworth Prison’ (SPOILERS)”
  5. Review: Outlander Season 1’s Ironic Chilling Effect
  6. Book Review: Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
  7. 3 Quick Book Reviews: Outlander, Dragonfly in Amber, and Voyager
  8. Outlander, 2015 San Diego Comic-Con: Binge On
  9. Five-Phrase Friday (9): “Slings and Arrows . . .”
  10. Five-Phrase Friday (10): Outlander Grammar
  11. Golden Globes for Outlander Starz!
  12. Outlander “2”: Dragonfly in Amber
  13. Five-Phrase Friday (36): Comic Relief in Outlander STARZ Ep201
  14. Five-Phrase Friday (37): No “Callow” Craft
  15. Outlander STARZ: Season 2 Review, Eps 201 and 202
  16. Review: Sandringham in Outlander STARZ – Beyond Adaptation
  17. Live Event Review: Diana Gabaldon Skype Session
  18. Outlander STARZ: “Faith” and Patience

Posts of our Scotland excursion are linked below and through the far-right, top-menu tab “Scotland” on the Philosofishal home page.

Before the trip:

  1. Book Review: Fodors Travel Essential Great Britain
  2. The Labor of Learning to Set Limits
  3. Five-Phrase Friday (38): Scotland

After the trip:

  1. Morning Fog, Loch Long, Arrochar – photo, the Trossachs (Oct 11, 2016)
  2. Scottish Color: A Photo Essay – overview of sensory highlights (Oct 12, 2016)
  3. The Paps of Jura – sea-and-mountains vista; language lesson (Oct 15, 2016)
  4. Linlithgow Palace, a.k.a. Wentworth Prison – profile of a lesser-known Outlander STARZ filming site (Oct 20, 2016)
  5. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 5: Of Mice, Men and Rabbie Burns – reading “To a Mouse” & The Writers’ Museum (Oct 24, 2016)
  6. Kurdish in Edinburgh – restaurant review (Nov 4, 2016)
  7. Dial up the sun – original poem, plus photos, National Museum of Scotland (Nov 9, 2016)
  8. An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 1 – my take on Outlander tourism, starting with film sites in Central Scotland (Dec 1, 2016)
  9. An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 2 – Central Scotland cont’d, Glasgow film sites, south to Ayrshire coast, Dumfries & Galloway (Dec 23, 2016)
  10. An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 3 – wraps up orientation to Highland sites from Perthshire to Ross & Cromarty to Inverness; Outlander STARZ & my museum/field photos of Culloden Visitor Centre, with commentary  (Feb 11, 2017)
  11. An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 4 – story of my trip-planning process, snapshots of our itinerary, our experience, and improvements (Mar 11, 2017)
  12. Wildlife TV Programs This Week – a heads-up for Wild Scotland on NatGeoWild. See the end section about select Scotland nature and wildlife tourism options with brief descriptions and links to resources. (Mar 27, 2017)
  13. Review: Slainte Scotland Outlander Tour + Outlander Tourism Resources – (a.k.a. Part 5) our Outlander tour, Slainte Scotland company review, notes on OL sites we visited alone, profiles of most popular OL film sites, list of 40 OL film sites, resources for OL book and inspiration sites, other OL tour co. links, articles on the show, plus how to survive Droughtlander (Apr 11, 2017)
  14. An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 6 – the final post in the OL tourism series, focused on Scottish and more general travel tips and resources, based on our Scotland trip experiences (Jun 15, 2017)

And I keep coming back to it—because I’m fascinated, captivated, intrigued, provoked in thought and feeling and spirit. It’s Gabaldon’s masterful storytelling that made all this possible and Outlander STARZ that elevates my interest even further. I write because I want to, because I can, and why the hell not? I daresay Tolstoy would approve.

My husband recently informed me that two Icelandic airlines have started direct flights from Cleveland to Reykjavik. “Wanna go to Iceland?” he asked. My coy reply? “Sure, as long as we can stop in Scotland on the way.” We spent our first vacation of any real length and substance since our 2008 honeymoon on a two-week Scottish excursion last fall. Some day, I hope to go back. For our 10th anniversary next year, I cannot think of a better, more romantic way to celebrate than reprising the trip we both so loved.

Outlander Season 3

Until then, there’s the third season journey of the STARZ adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s currently 8-novel series called Outlander. The premiere of the TV show’s return based closely, we have now been told, on Gabaldon’s third book Voyager airs in the United States on Sunday, September 10, 2017. Catch the show on STARZ at 8pm EDT or on the STARZ app.

It’s a 13-episode adventure through 1940s-60s Boston, 1960s and 1740s-60s Scotland, and various parts of the Caribbean Sea in the 1760s after our epic romantic heroes Claire and Jamie reunite in an Edinburgh print shop after 20 years and two centuries apart. I know it’s a lot of numbers to parse. . . . Stay tuned.

That separation, made possible by Claire’s time traveling ability, occurred as a direct result of the Battle of Culloden in 1746. In the Season 2 finale, Claire acknowledges to Jamie her new pregnancy and agrees to keep her promise of going back through the standing stones at Craigh na Dun, taking herself and their unborn child safely back to the future (Sam Heughan’s favorite movie, by the way).

While the battle itself is not part of the book’s plot, the TV show’s premiere features Jamie’s version of recalling the battle. The first several episodes then explore the separate, parallel lives of these time- and ocean-divided lovers, wife Claire and husband Jamie, as they struggle to learn to live and find purpose without one another.

As pivotal as it is to Scottish history, so is the Battle of Culloden to the Outlander STARZ drama. And because occasions for artistic representation of the battle are as rare as a total solar eclipse, I’ve chosen this niche topic as we prepare to watch a fresh rendering of parts of the battle in living color.

I have written previously about the anticipation of a TV representation of the Battle of Culloden in Part 3 of my six-part series An Outlander Tourist in Scotland. Key points are excerpted here:

Culloden Battlefield, a.k.a. Culloden Moor, Inverness-shire. “The Outlander action is all leading up to the bloody Battle of Culloden in 1746. More than 1,200 [Jacobite Army] men were killed [and nearly as many wounded] in the defeat of the Jacobite [side].” Source: photo caption excerpt. This final battle, while not depicted in the book, will be portrayed in the STARZ show during series 3, which is based on the third book Voyager.

Culloden Visitor Centre stewards, battle and Jacobite scholars, descendants of Scotch soldiers and their families, British historians, Outlander fans, Outlander STARZ cast and crew, and Scots citizens–in short, many, many people no doubt all eagerly anticipate this unique project coming to fruition.

I know it will be unforgettable, and I hope it will bring even more people to this historic site that has long been at the center of Scottish cultural identity and its dramatic transformation.

Previous Reenactments

Although this project is unique, the Battle of Culloden has been depicted in film before. Early during the Vietnam War, the 1960s brought us Culloden, Peter Watkins’ 70-minute docudrama, or “mockumentary,” of the battle in black and white, told as if modern TV cameras were present interviewing participants in the battle. Although I have not seen it, the film appears to have garnered some very positive reviews and has been described as “seminal” in its style and substance.

There is also The Great Getaway, a recent film about Bonnie Prince Charlie’s flight from British justice in the wake of the Jacobite defeat at Culloden, a production in which the battle plays a role. Although a trail of articles tracked its development, I was unable to discover whether this project ever saw the light of day or if it is still forthcoming; if you know anything about it, feel free to leave a comment.

Farther back, in the silent film era, 1923’s Culloden Avenged uses that historical turning point as a pretext for a rematch done archery style between the King’s Scottish Archers and the Woodmen of Arden in an International Archery Contest. Black and white, 60 minutes.

Beyond explanations and images in history books, there are available at the Culloden Visitor Centre museum dozens upon dozens of first-person accounts, artifacts, letters, poems, reenactment recordings, songs, artwork, and other representations of the battle in part or whole. I don’t plan to take my expertise on this subject further than reading all the articles in my Sources section at the end of this post. Perhaps I’ll watch Culloden or The Great Getaway at some point in the future, but history books about Culloden I leave to other readers.

Truth in the Balance

If we accept that history is as subjective as fiction, questions about how and how well Outlander, or any production, portrays history pale in importance to other questions focused separately on history and on fiction. We may be tempted to ask whether something has been misrepresented and how that alteration matters, and we are free to do so. The verdict is up to each individual consumer, however, and there should be no criminal indictment, just literary criticism. Art is for everyone to make of what they will.

As long as, and to the extent that, history’s facts, to say nothing of its general aura, remain incompletely known and in dispute by the descendants and scholars of opposing sides in the conflict (as well as of purportedly neutral persuasion), the question of accurate representation proves rather subjective, if not altogether moot.

Acknowledging this lack of necessity for accuracy leads us to ask a different kind of question. Which elements of story have the most impact on reader perspective? Should certain aspects carry more weight than others?

If we grant that readers and viewers of the Outlander series love it primarily for one, a few, or many of the following qualities—and these are all present, in my humble opinion—then historical correctness takes a farther seat back in the stretch limo:

  • intriguing premise and sweeping scenery
  • engaging plot and dramatic conflicts
  • compelling ensemble of characters, including seminal villains
  • high-quality writing, with sharp turns of phrase and vividly descriptive details
  • 20th-century English combat nurse’s narrative perspective, intelligence, insight, rash courage, ironic wit, loyalty, compassion, sense of justice (Libra), sharp memory, sharper-tongued sauciness, resourcefulness, ingenuity, medical skills, hardiness, sexual confidence, sense of adventure, large heart, steady determination
  • 18th-century Scottish Highlander’s physical strength, resilience, hot-headed stubbornness (Taurus), decisive leadership, clever intensity, educated virility, romantic sensibilities, controversial brutishness, forward-thinking adaptability, uncanny intuition, and unimaginable tenderness, i.e., “king of men”
  • centuries-spanning heroic couple’s beautiful transcendent love and at-times shocking sexual relationship
  • sci-fi/fantasy elements of time travel, folk superstition turned real, and the generally supernatural

At any rate, the best fiction, and the best art more broadly for that matter, sets out first to inspire, entertain, intrigue, or provoke thought. It is not, and should not be, the novelist’s job to “tell the truth” beyond what is true to the essence of the story itself. It’s fine to educate and enlighten, but that’s not the top priority with fiction.

Still, as someone whose interest extends beyond Outlander’s fiction into the culture and history of the Scottish Highlands, as well as Scotland, the UK, and the Scottish diaspora more broadly, I find value in examining the intersection of history and story.

In Good Faith

Besides the numerous, varied aspects listed above and despite our relieving historical fiction authors of the responsibility for absolute factual precision, this kind of accuracy is no less part of Gabaldon’s critical praise. As a former college professor and editor, as well as a keen and tenacious mind, the author has really done her homework. Readers note her extensive, intensive research of settings, customs, clothing, technology, medical expertise, weaponry, household goods, conveyances, animals, plants, and all other specific details she has selected.

In her first volume of The Outlandish Companion, Gabaldon describes her research precepts, what she tells audiences during lectures on the topic of historical fiction, and the process she pursues to balance authenticity with storytelling.

It is true, on the one hand, that a degree of accuracy, plausibility, and internal consistency are essential to author credibility in the telling of a story if the author is going to keep readers interested and not distracted by errors, suspicion, or confusion.

On the other hand, perhaps we should aim to focus our inquiry instead on the fictional representation of historical themes and settings as fiction—how the book series author imagines contextual history in order to serve a fictional story and how the STARZ TV production imagines its own version of Gabaldon’s use of history.

For, in truth, despite their impressive efforts to create an authentic milieu, both Gabaldon and STARZ’s crew would seem to have made some historico-factual errors toward the end of Dragonfly in Amber (DIA) and in Outlander STARZ Season 2’s penultimate episode, “The Hail Mary.” In different ways, they both diverge from what the National Trust Scotland official guidebook Culloden represents as accurate historical fact concerning the events leading immediately up to the battle. I’ll present each creative choice, compare them to fact, and then discuss implications.

Creative License or Misrepresentation?

Gabaldon changed the timing of the night march. STARZ changed the reason for its being aborted.

In DIA‘s Chapter 46, Gabaldon writes that the night march, historically represented to have occurred the night before the Battle of Culloden, happened two days earlier than it actually did. I would like to give this highly experienced, research-skilled author of numerous historical novels the benefit of the doubt, but I am curious to learn her reason or reasons for making this rather noticeable change in historical timing.

While STARZ/Moore got the moment of its occurrence correct, they more than implied that it was primarily lack of sufficient troops leading to the attack’s delay, rather than solely the projected timing of the army’s arrival at the Cumberland encampment in Nairn, that made Lord George Murray turn his troops around and head back to Inverness.

Fact: The night march did occur on April 15, the night before the Battle of Culloden, and those troops that did return came back exhausted, starving (more than they had been), and barely in time to form up for the noon-time battle.

Fact: There was no errant set of lost Prince Charles troops who never showed to meet up with Murray’s troops, as represented by the show (perhaps to give Jamie Fraser a larger role in the action?). By 2am on April 16, Murray’s lot, delayed instead by darkness, rough terrain and weakened bodies, were still four miles from the encampment and would lose all advantage with the sunrise.

Both of these seemingly unnecessary errors for the story or production create alterations that substantially improve neither dramatic effect nor characterization. Furthermore, pacing could have been preserved in the same way it came out if they’d left well enough alone. An aspect of history that was not in dispute has, under each author, become a thing, so to speak, needlessly increasing potential for controversy where before there was none.

It leads one to wonder whether these differences are accidents or intentional deviations, and if the latter, deviation for what purpose. But the key question is, “Whether purposeful or not, is the misrepresentation problematic, in any substantial way, to either history, story, or present society?”

The answer will, of course, depend on whom you speak with about it. For example, perhaps historians, modern-day Jacobites, Culloden-warrior descendants, fans of Bonnie Prince Charlie, today’s nationalistic Scots, and those sympathetic to people they perceive to be oppressed Highland Scots and Gaels will be none too pleased to see even fictional characters and their circumstances casting Prince Charles and his troops in an unfavorable light.

Omitted also from the show and book is the historic fact that, even before the night march, the over-eager prince formed his lines on Culloden Moor on April 15, the day before the battle actually took place, anticipating Cumberland’s forces that never arrived. Adding this fact to the fictionalized representation would legitimately portray the troops as being as thoroughly exhausted and unprepared as they really were.

Combine the two false starts of previous-day non-battle and aborted night march, and in some respects Charles Stuart appears even more foolish and the Jacobites more imperiled in the 24 hours leading up to the battle than either Gabaldon or the STARZ crew conveys.

Specifically with respect to those few days prior to the battle, however, the TV adaptation proves more historically accurate than Gabaldon’s use of history in the book, and in so doing, the show restores some of the pitiable absurdity of those desperate last moments of build-up to combat.

Perspective and Picking Your Battles

Motives aside and changes in detail considered, what are the effects of each creative choice?

For most readers and viewers, probably none. If you never learned (from a scholarly historical text, for instance) the detailed history of Culloden or the Jacobite Rising of 1745, you wouldn’t know what you missed, except that now I’ve told you.

Those who’ve paid a little more attention, perhaps visited Scotland, including the Culloden Visitor Centre, as well as some Scotland- or UK-based fans of the show, may notice a vague dissonance between scenes watched and history lessons recalled. Perhaps a few will “mark me” that those sequential details don’t wash.

We who notice errors, discrepancies, unintended anachronisms, or timescale flubs in film and television productions, and are bothered by them, can take solace in the fact that almost everybody does it at some point. For story’s sake, a production’s budgetary constraints, because they feel like it, or because they simply don’t know any better, mistakes happen in any endeavor involving human action. Culloden itself is, in a large number of respects, a seminal example of that truth.

Yet again, the Battle of Culloden is “merely days away,” as Claire says in ep212 to Black Jack Randall of his day of death, referring to that same fateful date of April 16, 1746. Our first Outlander-filtered experience of the battle will occur on September 10, 2017. Last April marked the 270-year anniversary of the Battle of Culloden, and the final Outlander Season 2 episodes, representing the eve of that battle, aired for the first time last summer.

Now at last come the battle itself and its aftermath through the eyes of our hero Jamie Fraser. His narrative filter replacing Claire’s usual perspective (complete with voice-overs), along with the combined writer-producer lens, greatly erodes the importance of accurately representing the events Jamie “reports.”

Fictional aims take priority. So, while past error may presage future error (or, in a time-travel story, vice versa?), the author can stand confidently at least behind the acceptable claim, if not the essential trait of fiction, that no character’s or narrator’s viewpoint is ever equivalent to the author’s.

Anyone who reads novels on a semi-regular basis also should know that the narrator is never 100% reliable and, in fact, this is even a large measure of the fun of exploring literature. I’d say the thoughts of a severely injured, exhausted, starving, and love-sick survivor of a major battle having flashbacks of said battle slot him neatly in the category of unreliable limited, first-person narrator, at least in that moment. No offense to James Alexander Malcolm Mackenzie Fraser.

Characters, if they are realistically drawn, get lots of things wrong—not only details but also the essence of their experiences—with imperfect, incomplete, biased, and sometimes wholly fabricated remembering. Memory, as I learned recently through my memoir writing class, is at best a reconstruction of partially formulated experiences that change in some way inevitably each and every time the mind revisits them. There are no pure, objective memories, and that’s just in real life.

With a first-person narrative pervading the fictional Outlander series, and given the degree of detail we are meant to imagine that fiery, intelligent, love-driven Claire recalling for the reader, such a saga, even as a work of fiction, must necessarily allow for the main character-narrator’s flawed memory. In other words, yes, sometimes in telling her story, Claire could be almost lying, even to herself, though that’s clearly not Gabaldon’s overall intention.

It’s not only just a story; it’s a tale told by a completely manufactured character, who, as some of the best writers and musicians argue, has a mind of its own. Conversely, in a way, we must suspend our disbelief to allow Claire’s memory to be far too intact for realism, thanks to Diana’s meticulous research and writing.

Lines Blurred and Crossed

Where does all this leave us in our questions on the relationships between history and story in the case of Outlander? Is there a red line on misrepresentation or creative alteration? Has Outlander already crossed that line? In world building, no. In some specific events, actions, and sequences, it’s possible.

So, what is a reader or viewer to do with that? My recommendations follow.

Where the creator’s conscious intentions of a certain type of portrayal of a historical figure, event, period, or atmosphere are evident, it comes down to a simple choice. As a consumer, you either accept it or withdraw support by refusing to read or watch.

Where accident seems more prominent than purposefulness, you can criticize or chalk it up to fallible humanity. If it’s unclear and not easily learned one way or another, then be confused if you must, but reserve harsh judgment for greater, more obvious crimes. With Outlander, Gabaldon and STARZ/Moore got the vast majority of things right.

Truly accurate nonfiction representation of history would mean that the red and blue lines on the battle maps of Culloden (and of most conflicts) should in fact both appear as rainbows, multicolored pixel grids, or gradient color bars with mildly contrasting shade tendencies, rather than starkly contrasting, completely separate, solid, single-color areas. In the end, complete accuracy might be both rare and indecipherable and, thus, practically pointless.

And, besides, if you’re already an Outlander fan for any or all the aforementioned non-historical reasons, and some of the historical ones, how likely are you, really, to throw the baby out with the bathwater now?

If I am to keep reading a book or watching a show, you could say my only hard-and-fast rule for soundness beyond good narrative grammar and general readability is internal consistency. By this measure, Gabaldon definitely has a leg up on STARZ and Ron Moore, due to their series of time-scale errors bridging the second half of Season 1 through the opening of Season 2. (The one I don’t discuss in the above-linked post is the “typo” on the screen caption to ep201 when Claire, Jamie, and Murtagh land in France: it would have to be 1744, not 1745, folks.)

Producers of the STARZ adaptation chose a different seasonal starting point of autumn instead of spring of the respective years of 1945 and 1743 to start the series, which in itself might not have been problematic. However, perhaps for this reason but probably also others, the time line chips fell (apart a little) from there. But again, just check the IMDB.com entry of your favorite movie or TV show, and you’re sure to find errors in the “goofs” section of the page.

Imperfect Fondness

Even knowing all that I’ve learned through close examination and a little research about both the timescale issues and the pre-Culloden discrepancies, and feeling troubled by them, I don’t plan to stop watching the show or reading the books (I’m on book 5 of 8, soon to be 9). That’s just how good it all is.

As an English teacher and a student of philosophy, I’ve always believed in the power of fiction to reveal truths of human nature and to raise valuable life questions. Both book and show of the Outlander saga have proven their worth to me by excelling in this art. I’m also curious to see how closely the story follows the battle in this first Outlander representation of scenes from it. Note that Gabaldon chose not to depict the battle, probably to keep focused on Claire’s perspective and to emphasize Jamie’s individual story over the larger context, as is fitting.

The book and TV series have made us laugh, gasp, hold our breath, stare in horror or fascination or infatuation, cringe, look away, and generally become obsessed with the story and its characters. Perhaps most of all, Outlander makes us weep, and the battle depiction may indeed prove to be another major trigger for tears–and cringing.

The infamous Battle of Culloden has been talked about in the script since the first season. It is the reason for our heroic couple’s separation, and it changed the course of history.

The real, horrific general slaughter of Jacobites in battle, their defeat, and that of the rebellion precipitated the great suffering of Scottish survivors and innocent civilians alike. As part of a campaign of punishing traitors, the Duke of Cumberland allowed government soldiers to hunt down fleeing Jacobites, pillage and burn property, torture, rape, and murder in the hours and days after battle.

Later that year, rebel leaders were executed, others including Prince Charles fled the country, and mass exodus followed. New British laws brought more formal economic and cultural suppression of Highland Gaels, and even Scots who had fought for the government, through decades of humiliating, famine-stricken aftermath. Culloden was the last battle fought on British soil.

Inevitably, then, Culloden in Outlander STARZ will be the ultimate tragedy of the entire series so far, a series that has delivered multiple, regular nightmares and personal tragedies, as well as the most hair-raising encounters, rescues, reunions, and journeys.

Till next time, enjoy—and endure in solidarity—the journeys of mind, heart, and soul that these Outlandish art forms, in their peculiar cross-dialogue, give us all. They fuel our obsession and reward our curiosity with such overarching respect, dedication, talent, hard work, and passion for the Outlander story and its cultural and historical inspirations.

I hope this post has offered fans, those on the fence, and those about to jump off some meaningful perspective on the nexus of culture, history, historical fiction, and artistic adaptation. Perhaps Outlander can teach us something about the nature of truth and fact, the variable gap between efforts and results, the wonder of resilience, the supreme importance of love, or the inescapable folly of war. In art as in life, you cannot control all the outcomes, but the choice of which most valuable lessons or beautiful impressions to take with you is no one’s but yours.

And Happy Season 3, Sassenachs! We made it—we conquered the longest Droughtlander yet. Catch the show’s return September 10 on STARZ at 8pm EDT or on the STARZ app.


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Sampling of Sources Consulted or Considered, a.k.a. Almost a Bibliography

Recent History

Headlines

Wandering Educators, Dr. Jessie Voigts, 2009: Culloden: From Battle To Exile

BBC News, 2011: Apology sought for “war crimes” in Culloden’s aftermath

I wonder if the show’s success (2015-17) at all contributed to their story selections:

History Scotland, June 2016: The Battle of Culloden – new research dispels three long-held myths. This article reviews a scholarly publication addressing myths about (1) the choice of battleground, (2) types of weapons the Jacobites used, and (3) identities of the opposing sides involved. Includes video of the professor’s views on his findings. The book is Culloden. By Murray Pittock. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. Works by Pittock on Stuart and Jacobite myths listed in NTS’s Culloden.

Daily Mail, Richard Gray, April 2016: Holey skull gives a glimpse at the brutality of the Battle of Culloden: 3D model of soldier’s remains shows he was shot in the top of the head in 1746 | Daily Mail Online

Daily Mail, Mark Duell, July 2016: Bonny Prince Charlie’s vanquished troops were NOT an army of Highland savages | Daily Mail Online

Outlander News

Daily Record, Carla Callaghan, June 2015: Outlander’s Sam Heughan on his excitement over Battle of Culloden plot and what writer Diana Gabaldon emails him

Cinemablend, Jessica Rawden, August 2016: Why You Should Be Excited About Outlander Season 3’s Battle of Culloden

IGN, Terri Schwartz, April 2016: Outlander: The History vs. Fiction of Bonnie Prince Charlie

Literature

Nonfiction

Culloden, National Trust Scotland, 2016, official guidebook on sale at Culloden Visitor Centre. Writers/contributors: Lyndsey Bowditch, Dr. Andrew Mackillop, Dr. Tony Pollard. Edited by Hilary Horrocks. See also the “Further reading” section opposite the inside back flap of the guidebook.

The Tears of Scotland, Tobias Smollett, 1746 (referenced in the NTS guidebook).

Culloden, John Prebble, 1961. Pimlico, 2002.

The Outlandish Companion, Diana Gabaldon, 1999. Delacorte Press, Random House.

Novels

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon

Voyager by Diana Gabaldon

Novels of the Eighteenth Century, Historicalnovels.info/Eighteenth-Century.html lists 1700s novels in English, including all of Diana’s. Sections include British and Irish, Continental Europe, North America, and mysteries in thrillers from these settings.

Scholarly Articles and Books

Joseph Knight: Scotland and the Black Atlantic. Michael Morris. International Journal of Scottish Literature, Issue Four, Spring/Summer 2008. ISSN 1751-2808. Terms used to find this source: “books battle of culloden fiction nonfiction history depictions descriptions explanation”

The “Outlander” Experience: Time-Travel, Literary Tourism and North American Perceptions of the Scottish Highlands, Dr Amy Clarke, (N.d.), University of the Sunshine Coast, Australia. Retrieved on Academia.edu. Good bibliography with some selections below.

Bueltmann, T., Hinson, A. and Morton, G. (2013). The Scottish diaspora. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP.

Currie, H. (1997). Diana Gabaldon breaks the rules: best-selling author knew nothing about Scotland before writing Outlander series. Kitchener-Waterloo Record, 31 January.

Devine, T. M. (2004). Scotland’s empire, 1600-1815. London: Penguin.

Finlay, R. J. (1994). Controlling the past: Scottish historiography and Scottish identity in the 19th and 20th centuries. Scottish Affairs 9, 124-140.

Gold, J. R. and Gold, M. M. (1995). Imagining Scotland: tradition, representation and promotion in Scottish tourism since 1750. Aldershot: Scolar.

McCrone, D. (1992). Understanding Scotland: the sociology of a stateless nation. London: Routledge.

Fine Art

Painting: An incident in the rebellion of 1745, by David Morier

Film/TV

Culloden Avenged, 1923

The Battle of Culloden (TV Movie 1964) – IMDb

Culloden (The Battle of Culloden) (2003) – Rotten Tomatoes

Epic battle to star in Bonnie Prince Charlie film – The Scotsman (The Great Getaway, 2016)

Historical Movies in Chronological Order. Patrick L. Cooney PhD, Rise Education Resource Center.

Outlander

Episode 212, “The Hail Mary,” Outlander STARZ TV series

Aggregate of Season 1 and 2 episodes

Dolphin spotting with Captain Casper the sea dog! 

From Scotland with the Wee White Dug, a tale of adventures in the Highlands, including the Pump Room and Spa Exhibition in Strathpeffer, a view of Castle Leod (seat of Clan Mackenzie), the Touchstone Maze honoring Scotland’s historic sites, a Moray Firth cruise with Dolphin Spirit Inverness, enchanting music at Embrace Gifts shop along with wood carvings at Victorian Station, the Eagle Stone of The Pictish Trail, and more. Just further proof, as if we needed any, that your Scotland trip deserves quality time in Inverness-shire and at least a glimpse of the Northern Highlands.

Scotland with The Wee White Dug

Today I’m going to share with you an eclectic mix of Victorian spa town in the Scottish Highlands and a dolphin spotting adventure on the Moray Firth.

Last Saturday after an early breakfast at our B&B near Portmahomack, we set off along the NC500 route between Tain and Dingwall to make the 34 mile journey to Strathpeffer. Strathpeffer lies a few miles west of Dingwall.

The village sits in a wide mountain valley or strath. Leafy, and surrounded by mountains it has the look of an Alpine village to it.

Arriving in Strathpeffer is like stepping back in time. The Victorians have left an instantly recognisable imprint on the architecture of the village. You half expect to see elegantly dressed ladies, strolling down the street on the arm of top hatted gents with mutton-chop whiskers.

The Victorian Station

When we arrived at the station a cute little shop calledEmbrace…

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