Book Bag: ‘Max, the Sea-Dog’ by Peter Rose; ‘Wild Nights’ by Ruth Wolff

Published: 5/4/2018 8:39:10 AM

by Steve Pfarrer


By Peter Rose

Illustrated by Evanleigh Davis

Sea House Books

Former Smith College sociology and anthropology professor Peter Rose had written widely on those topics over the years, and in his retirement he’s also become a busy travel writer for a number of publications.

But in his new book, Rose, who splits time between Northampton and Cape Cod, has fashioned something different: “Max, the Sea-dog” is a children’s story about an aging but still adventurous canine who somehow finds himself lost at sea.

At the start of the tale, Max joins a young boy, Sam, and another dog, Dante, as the trio investigates the tidal flats on a small island off the coast of Cape Cod. Thick fog obscures everything, giving their walk a little tinge of adventure.

Max in particular is enjoying himself: “He was excited and he began to do something he hadn’t done in a long time — he started running. Although he was still pretty slow, he felt like a young puppy.”

But Max somehow gets lost, wandering out into the foggy ocean where he’s forced to swim; he can’t find his way back to land. Sam and Dante search for their friend; Sam even paddles around in his kayak until he’s forced to seek help from a fishing boat and worries that his pal Max is gone for good.

The story, told partly from Max’s perspective — “Max had a vivid imagination and a great memory” Rose writes — is illustrated by Evanleigh Davis, a recent Smith College graduate who was a student of acclaimed illustrator and printmaker Barry Moser, who designed “Max, the Sea-dog.”



By Ruth Wolff

Ruth Wolff, who graduated from Smith College in the early 1950s, later became a successful playwright and screenwriter whose work, such as the plays “The Abdication” and “Sarah in America,” were performed in the United States and abroad.

Though Wolff has long made her home in New York City, she hasn’t forgotten her time in the Valley. She has set her first book, “Wild Nights,” here, and she’s based it on one of the area’s best-know families: The Dickinsons of Amherst.

The novel explores what was at the time a shocking affair that involved a young, vibrant woman in town, Mary Loomis Todd, who moved to Amherst in the early 1880s when her husband, David, took a job teaching astronomy at Amherst College.

As Emily Dickinson followers know, the reclusive poet’s brother Austin, then 51 to Mabel’s 24, soon fell passionately in love with her, and the two began an affair — one her husband accepted, at least initially, even if Austin’s wife, Susan, did not.

In Wolff’s take on the story, what begins as a sexual adventure between Austin and Mabel becomes something much deeper in time. After the first time they’re intimate (in Emily’s home), Austin watches from the window as Mabel leaves the house, his face “full of gravity, gratitude — and overwhelming love … There was such a sense of life about her. She was more open and uninhibited than any woman he had ever known.”

Things get a bit risqué after that, as Mabel returns to tell her husband how she’s just consummated her relationship with Austin and he tells her that excites him — and promptly makes love to her.

Wolff sketches Mabel as a young woman looking for something more in her life — and finding a kindred spirit, surprisingly, in the somewhat dour Dickinson, who feels stifled in his marriage and job. She also enjoys the ménage à trois she has with him and her husband. She even tells her friend, Caro, that she’s free to sleep with David, a man Caro has always liked.

“Mabel’s altruism and her love — for her friend, for her husband, and for her lover — knew no bounds,” Wolff writes.

The good people of Amherst, though, are scandalized, and Mabel eventually finds herself ostracized by many, including Susan Dickinson; David worries he could lose his job at Amherst College because of the scandal. Mabel does find solace in a friendship through letters she develops with Emily Dickinson; it was after Dickinson’s death that Mabel Loomis Todd helped bring Dickinson’s poems to a larger audience.

Through it all, Mabel and Austin shrug off the disapproval of the town and even their family members to pursue their “Wild Nights” — the title is taken from an Emily Dickinson poem — and Mabel emerges as fiercely independent woman who’s not afraid to buck societal mores and conventions.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at


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