Summer Reading: A Bible Story Retold Well

I was raised reading the Picture Bible every night for many years. It’s a tradition I’ve continued, on and off, with my own children, and they enjoy the drama as much as I did as a child. I have my brother’s old childhood copy of it, circa 1982, and just opening it reminds me of curling up with my dad or mom.

For the most part, this is a great way to introduce the excitement of Bible stories to my kids, in the context of bedtime stories. They remember the drawings, the storytelling, the cliffhangers between nights.

I’ve never found a copy of the Picture Bible, though, that has the book of Tobit (or the Maccabees stories either, for that matter). It’s too bad, too: I wasn’t raised with these books of the Bible (I wasn’t raised Catholic), but I love them dearly. They’re packed with adventure and lessons worth considering again and again.

The year after I became Catholic, I read the book of Tobit sitting in Adoration. It was so “classic Bible” in some ways and so “hey, I would have loved this as a kid!” in others.

Tobit's Dog (Ignatius Press, 2014)
Tobit's Dog (Ignatius Press, 2014)

So when I heard that Tobit’s Dog (Ignatius Press, 2014), by Michael Nicholas Richard, was a modern retelling of the book of Tobit, I was curious. I knew it was a book that would be on my summer reading. I didn’t expect it to become one of my favorite reads of the year.

What’s great about Tobit’s Dog is threefold. First, it’s not shoved down your throat. Instead, it’s subtle and funny and clever. The dialogue is worth savoring, the descriptions are technicolor, and the plot is gripping (even though you may already sort of know what’s going to happen).

Settled back in the truck, he relaxed. He was thinking now that it was too late in the night for any real Klan trouble. The click of nails on metal came from over his head as Okra resettled on the roof. That’s a good watchdog, thought Forgeron, as drowsiness settled on him.

The drowsiness gave way to dozing, and the dozing to sleep, and the sleep to dreaming. He dreamed about Brenda Wiggles—not her real name, of course. She was a buxom prostitute with a tumble of blonde hair and the fullest lips he’d ever known on a white woman. He dreamed that she was kissing his cheek, and a familiar stirring began in him. He signed, until it seemed that her lips became impossibly large, and then bristly.

The face and lips of a mule caused him to throw himself the other direction. “What the—”

A more full wakefulness passed over him. He managed a half chuckle at his own expense. “Joe-boy, is that you?”

“Well, ’course it’s you or Okra would’ve been raisin’ Cain, I reckon.”

He rubbed his face to remove mule slobber and waken himself even more. Then he opened the door as the mule backed away some. He cast a suspicious glance at the animal. “You are supposed to be in jail.”

Okra had climbed back onto the roof of the cab and was sniffing his head. Forgeron pushed his muzzle away. “All right, I’ve had enough smooching from animals. Come on, you stubborn ol’ mule. Reckon you don’t care a damn fro what that worthless sheriff wants. Let’s get you back to your barn.”

Secondly, the characters in this book challenged me in many ways. The setting is the Jim Crow South of the United States, which makes reading it…uncomfortable and educational and humorous in ways I would have never expected.

As I read this book, it played out in my head in a most delightful movie. I had a fleeting thought about what a great movie it would make, in part because then I would see Okra, the dog, for myself. Though there’s a picture of him on the cover, I’d like to see the wagging-shaking effect myself. And pet him, too, though a movie wouldn't let me do that.

“Deputy,” replied Tobit. “I don’t see the sheriff’s car. Is he nearby?”

Gaines chuckled cryptically. “Today’s Saturday.”

Tobit nodded; he should have thought of that. He drew in a breath before speaking again. “Deputy, I’ve got something you need to see. It won’t be a pleasant sight. If you’ll come to the cart with me.”

Gaines followed him. The deputy’s face drew into a grimace. “God a’mighty, what’s that smell?”

“It’s a body. A boy, James Farmer, though I ’spect you don’t know him.”

“What are you doing with a body in the back of your cart?” asked the incredulous deputy. He had paused a moment, not entirely sure he wanted to continue toward the stench.

“The boy had been hanging from a tree for three days,” was Tobit’s grim reply. “The sheriff was called near the end of the first day, and again the mornin’ of the second, but still the boy was hanging.”

The deputy’s eyes widened a moment, but then Tobit could see the man drawing a mask over his face. “Ain’t no record of such a call, that I know of.”

“I ’spect not,” sighed Tobit as they reached the cart. He leaned over the side rail and loosened the canvas and pulled it back from over the body. He reached down and turned the wooden plank so the deputy could see what was carved into it.

Third, this book makes me want to sit down with the book of Tobit again, because I know that I would appreciate it even more with a fresh rereading.

I’d love to see this book on a required reading list. There are layers to its characters, to its plot line, and to how it ties in (and differs from) the biblical story that would be great to explore in a classroom.

More than that, though, this book makes the story of Tobit applicable to a time in our history that's difficult to understand and difficult to discuss. And in doing that, it opens and unpacks the Bible in a wider way.

Then Ace knelt and kissed the feet of the crucified Christ. Those feet were astonishingly real, bloodstained and with the last lingering warmth of life as the sacrifice became complete. Ace turned a gaze of burning beauty upon Tobias before following the memory of the congregation into a brilliance Tobias could not bear.

Tobias trembled at the terrible beauty of it. Then he felt his gaze pulled to the back of the church, where he saw Okra standing near the doors, watching the great celebration with his head inquisitively tilted.

The mark of a great book, for me, can be found in whether I want to reread it and discuss it. With Tobit’s Dog, I find the uncharacteristic desire to do both. Highly recommended—though there are some graphic scenes, I think your teens might benefit from it too.