Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Animal Death in Fiction: Is it a deal breaker for you?

We all have our deal breakers when it comes to fiction, and mine is clearly the death of animals.  It's why I avoid obvious tearjerkers like OLD YELLER or MARLEY AND ME or WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS (hint: if the animal is on the cover, it's probably going to die). But sometimes, even if you do your best to pick books that seem to have nothing to do with furry creatures, you'll encounter the tragic death of an animal anyway. And the thing is - sometimes these deaths seem gratuitous - a shortcut for the author to show that a character is deranged or a cheap trick to wrangle some emotion out of the reader.  And that's when I'm compelled to exit.



Recently, I was reading AMITY & SORROW, an adult novel about a mother and a pair of sisters fleeing a cult. With spare and haunting prose, Author Peggy Riley shows us the horrors these women have lived through and how difficult it can be to escape our pasts.  She also shows how warped Sorrow has become, detailing her increasingly erratic and destructive behavior. But then Sorrow kills a kitten - and I had to put down the book forever.

Perhaps I'm overly sensitive, but that act seemed unnecessary.  I already knew that Sorrow was seriously messed up - wasn't there another way to illustrate how far she'd go?  Anything other than killing a newborn kitten?

There are other books that have shocked me with their cat and dog killing ways.  One of my biggest hurdles to liking fan favorite JELLICOE ROAD by Melina Marchetta is that Taylor drowns a cat - and once she did that, it was very difficult for me to sympathize with her (though I did finish the book). I had to skip a whole chapter in Tiffany Schmidt's SEND ME A SIGN because of a dying pet, and gritted my teeth together when Jerome reveals that he used to kill cats in Martha Brockenbrough's DEVINE INTERVENTION (though this is admittedly a good reason for Jerome to worry he might end up in hell).

There are times, too, that I'll avoid books entirely because other readers have warned me about animals dying within (such as BLACK CITY by Elizabeth Richards and ORIGIN by Jessica Khoury - as much as I find the premises of these books appealing, I just can't go there right now).

That is not to say I don't think there is a legitimate place for animal deaths in some stories.  For example, I thought the way KM Walton handled it in CRACKED was justifiable and moving. See, Victor is friendless, hopeless, and plagued with suicidal thoughts. The family's elderly poodle is Victor's only reason for living - so when he dies, it's the final straw. (Note: I think it was wise that Walton stressed that the poodle lived a full and happy life.)  And Megan Shepherd's THE MADMAN'S DAUGHTER would have hardly worked as a retelling of THE ISLAND OF DR MOREAU without being true to the original's animal experimentation plotline.

If animal deaths are also a deal breaker for you, you might want to check out this list of books where the dog dies (sadly I couldn't find a similar list for cats) and this website which covers all animal deaths in movies.

(Speaking of movies, I was beside myself with worry for the cat in MOONRISE KINGDOM, and then *pow* the poor dog bites it.)

What's your take? When is it acceptable to portray animal deaths in fiction - if ever? 

16 comments:

Sandy Nawrot said...

9 out of 10 times, if there is an animal on the cover, I won't touch it with a ten foot pole. I prefer a little more subtlety in having my emotions manipulated. Exception? The Art of Racing in the Rain, which I am glad I read, but I cried like I'd lost a child. And I DID feel manipulated. Don't even get me started on Manchee in the Knife of Never Letting Go. That ruined me. I guess my answer is that I'm inconsistent...I will persevere for the sake of the book if it is good, but harm to an animal upsets me greatly.

Lenore Appelhans said...

Oh! I completely forgot about about Manchee because it was so completely horrible that I purposely put it out of my mind. I did read (and love) that entire series, but I was sick with worry about the horse in book three for sure!

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I agree with Sandy - I avoid fiction with animals on the cover! I think I cried for about six hours after Where The Red Fern Grows! And actually, Manchee WAS on the cover, but little did we know! :--) And yes - me too with worrying about the horse!

Lenore Appelhans said...

You're right! Manchee WAS on the cover. Fair warning ;)

caite said...

Books, movies, TV...I can not deal with a doggie death.

Harvee @ Book Dilettante said...

I know some people who won't read books with animals because they are afraid of reading about their dying. There are so many good animal books that don't end in tragedy, however.

Lenore Appelhans said...

TV - Right! Revenge pulled a dog death last season. Gah!

Harvee - Sounds like we need a list called "animal books that don't end in death." :D

Christina said...

I agree! Animal death makes me cry. There's one in The Beginning of Everything that almost made me knock it down a half star. I decided to be nice, because otherwise it was really good, but UGH that ending. You are warned.

Oh, another one with an acceptable animal death (in so much as that is possible) is Anatomy of a Boyfriend. The dog is old, and the guy is seriously broken up about it.

The one in Black City was super not necessary; you can argue that the ones in Origin were, but I still can't even with that.

You will also want to avoid The One and Only Ivan. There's a part of that book that describes gorilla death and dismemberment. *shudders*

Lenore Appelhans said...

Ooh! I like that you bring up Anatomy of a Boyfriend. I read that and remember thinking that though it was SUPER SAD, it was a very nice character moment.

Liviania said...

I think animals in books have a 90% mortality rate. It's hard to a void, so I'm lucky it isn't a dealbreaker for me. But the one in I'll Get There, It Better Be Worth the Trip was the most recent one to make me cry.

And I can't believe I'm the first person to bring up that Hedwig's death was totally unnecessary.

Daniela said...

Ugh yes, I honestly can't deal with any kind of animal death. For example, I'm never going to pick up the Chaos Walking series because I've heard there's an awful pet death and I know I can't deal with that, so. Honestly, that website is awesome! I only wish someone would put together a comprehensive one for books, too!

As for Moonrise Kingdom, what was the point of the dog's death?? It's a great movie otherwise, but I don't want to rewatch it because of that!

Also, can we talk about Game of Thrones, both TV and book versions? SO UPSETTING.

Lenore Appelhans said...

Game of Thrones! I think George enjoys upsetting us in all ways possible!

bermudaonion said...

I certainly don't like to read about the death of animals but it's not a deal breaker for me. I have read a few that really turned my stomach though.

Leanna (Daisy Chain Book Reviews) said...

Totally! I can't deal! Thanks for the Amity and Sorrow warning - that one was on my TBR! Also, thanks for the links!

Linda said...

I loved Old Yeller and Marley & Me, but they were definitely tear jerkers!

Jeane said...

For some reason I'm okay if the animals die, even though I love animals. I can't stand them being endlessly tormented though, like in Nop's Trials. Don't ever try reading Steinbeck's Red Pony. That one is heartbreaking, even for me.