Memoirist Brooke Newman’s ‘Not Always Home Before Dark’ celebrates an extraordinary Aspen dog
With her first book in a decade, Aspen author Brooke Newman aims to capture the untamed spirit of her beloved and misadventure-prone dog in “Not Always Home Before Dark.”
The memoir recounts how, when Newman met Cajun, he was malnourished and traumatized. One of a group of dogs rescued by the Aspen Animal Shelter in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the pup had been saved from the floodzone of St. Bernard Parish east of New Orleans.
The unpredictable and charming animal would take Newman on many unexpected journeys in the years to come, and Cajun would also lead the author back to publishing, following what she calls a “traumatic” experience in the book world’s highest echelons with her 2010 memoir “Jenniemae and James.”
Newman was best-known as author of 2002’s “The Little Tern,” a fable for adults that became an overseas phenomenon with long runs on bestseller lists in Germany, South Korea, Japan and elsewhere.
After drawing wide interest from publishers, “Jenniemae & James” – her recounting of the warm relationship between her father, a renowned mathematician, and the family’s nanny – sold at auction to Random House’s Harmony Books. The much-hyped title attracted breathless pre-publication press and had all the makings of a literary blockbuster, including the coveted Publishers Weekly starred review and a national book tour. But then, upon publication, it got brutally panned by New York Times critic Dwight Garner in the kind of damning negative review that can kill a book.
“I really thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown,” Newman said of the searing book launch. “It was a horrible experience.”
The book did earn some positive notices elsewhere, and did find a readership. But the Times review dimmed its commercial and critical prospects while also irrevocably changing the course of Newman’s work as a public-facing writer.
“The experience was boggling,” she recalled. “I never said, ‘I’m never going to write again.’ But I did have to hunker down and just write what was important to me.”
Privately in the years that followed, she continued to hone her craft, working from her log-built home in the Knollwood neighborhood east of Aspen and on Cape Cod in the summers.
Newman estimates she has about 500 pages of manuscripts in-progress from these years, including fiction, nonfiction and reportage. She corresponds regularly with her mentor, the author and publishing industry vet Michael Korda, sharing snippets and developing projects, and with friends like the legendary literary agent Sterling Lord (best known as Jack Kerouac’s agent, Lord was an early champion of “Not Always Home Before Dark”).
Through this wilderness period following “Jenniemae and James,” Newman was compelled to commit Cajun’s stories to paper. They were fun and enlivening to write, just as she found this remarkable dog’s friendship fun and enlivening.
“It was like coming off a bad divorce,” she said of the flop of “Jenniemae and James.” “It had been traumatic. So it was soothing to me to tell these Cajun stories.”
When Cajun died two years ago, Newman polished the stories into a book.
“He gifted me something really wonderful – a love and humor and ridiculousness and a compassion,” Newman said. “So I felt I had to finish it for Cajun.”
Newman hadn’t written anything in years that she wanted to publish. But the Cajun stories, as she and Korda pared them down and refined the manuscript, was clearly a book worth sharing – an Aspen-centric twist on the folksy man’s-best-friend tales that have followed in the footsteps of John Steinbeck’s “Travels With Charley,” a comparison that “Not Always Home Before Dark” lives up to.
The book is filled with endearing and well-told dog stories. There’s the winter morning that Cajun hiked up Aspen Mountain on his own, had donuts with ski patrol, then rode the gondola down by himself. And there’s the off-season night he got picked up by the Aspen Police Department. The time – multiple, actually – he crashed a stranger’s wedding ceremony and ended up being a guest of honor.
Clearly, Cajun was good company in life. He remains so in the pages of Newman’s light and loving book.
Accompanied by photos of Cajun and simple line-drawings by the author, “Not Always Home Before Dark” is welcome literary comfort food during this uncomfortable moment in history. Newman calls it a “love story” and expects it will bring some of Cajun’s joy to readers.
“I hope people will have a nice read and a laugh and maybe find something that rings true for them,” she said.
The new book’s modest November release is a new experience for Newman, who has delivered copies to local booksellers herself. Due to the pandemic, there won’t be a traditional book tour or any of the marketing falderal of her last book. But it is certain to find a following among Aspenites and doglovers.
The book exudes Aspen’s small town charms and Aspen’s sometimes absurd adoration of its dogs. Bright in tone, breezily paced and short enough to read in an afternoon, the book quietly but compellingly makes a case for the power of human-animal relationships.
“Some pets can touch you in a way,” Newman said. “The book is an acknowledgment of that kind of love, of the love story that develops sometimes if you are lucky and you allow it. That can be a bond that is unique and extraordinary.”
‘Not Always Home Before Dark’
By Brooke Newman
170 pages, paperback: $14
Troy Book Makers, 2020
The annual Sardy House Christmas tree lighting was held on a snowy Sunday, Dec. 3. Locals and visitors alike drank hot chocolate and ate cookies as they awaited the holiday tradition.