Tom Ryan and Atticus M. Finch
A Literary Festival Outtake
By Kathleen Downey
Jabberwocky Bookshop was packed last Saturday morning. Tom Ryan—the former publisher/writer and provocateur of the now-defunct Newburyport political journal, the Undertoad—and Atticus M. Finch, Ryan’s canine counterpart, literary muse, and friend—were in the house. And so were 150 of their friends. As invited guests of the Newburyport Literary Festival, the unlikely duo stood before a small wooden podium in the front of the bookshop’s Green Room. The larger one held the furrier one in his arms, and together they graciously received the warmth and affection of those who had come to see the self-exiled writer and his pooch, at least one of the two who is likely destined for worldwide fame.
Ryan came to town to talk about his forthcoming memoir, following atticus, to be published this fall by William Morrow. An image of a guileless Atticus graces the book jacket’s cover, perhaps hinting at the real celebrity of this duo. With Atticus burrowing his compact body into Ryan’s embrace, Ryan surveyed the audience and appeared genuinely moved by emotion. Then, after gently placing Atticus on the table beside him, upon which a blanket which had been laid for Atticus’s comfort, Ryan fully embraced his audience.
following atticus, Ryan divulged, details the subtle and extraordinary way that a Miniature Schnauzer transformed a somewhat cynical newspaperman into a better individual—maybe not as noble and ingenuous as his dog, but certainly into a more truer human being. It is Atticus who has led Ryan on his path of self-discovery, through the through the humbling majesty of New Hampshire’s White Mountains.
Speaking of the profound and powerful impact of nature and dogs, Ryan told his rapt audience, “I found great solace in moving to the mountains. And Atticus helped me to figure out what I am supposed to do with my life.” He recalled hiking his first mountain with Atticus and reflected upon the expansive view that greeted them atop the summit. “It was a defining moment that changed my life,” Ryan said. Atticus’s lessons in restoring his human’s humility had begun.
But it was Atticus’s predecessor, a Schnauzer named Max, whom Ryan credits with laying the groundwork for his transformation. “Max was 12-years-old when I adopted him. He came from a series of homes, the last of which he had been confined to the basement,” said Ryan. After a brief pause, Ryan added, “Max had issues, but we were soul mates.” Many seated on the Green Room’s fold-up chairs and in the balcony nodded their heads, acknowledging Ryan’s statement as a simple testament to the bond that humans share with their animal companions. Although their time together was brief, Max had cracked open the window into Ryan’s heart, allowing for a little Schnauzer with a remarkable spirit to slip in.
“Atticus’s breeder didn’t really want to give him up,” Ryan recalls. “She said that he was special, and she wasn’t sure that she could part with him.” It was this special, undefined quality that Ryan also noticed in the puppy and that convinced Ryan that Atticus was the dog for him. One of the “Atticus-isms” that first charmed Ryan was the dog’s penchant for striking a pose—as if Schnauzer “vogueing.” As Ryan shared this information, Atticus—as if on cue—fully stretched his body on the table, where he’d been quietly and politely listening, and cocked his head as if flirting with those in the first row. From that moment on, those who were not already charmed by Ryan’s curly-haired literary muse were now fully under his canine spell.
Thanks to Atticus, Ryan told the audience, he started taking better care of himself. When he sold the Undertoad in 2007, Ryan and Atticus left Newburyport and moved north to Jackson, NH. Soon after, Ryan took on the humanitarian quest of raising money for the cure of cancer through the Jimmy Fund and Dana-Farber. Inspired by a good friend from Newburyport who ultimately died of the disease, Ryan—with Atticus leading him—set out to climb 96 peaks in 90 days; that is, ascend each of the White Mountains’ forty-eight 4000-footers—twice during the winter months. (Tom and Atticus had, the summer before, successfully summitted each peak in 11 weeks.) The indefatigable team of two came close to reaching this wintry, lofty goal and they raised generous funds in the course of their pursuit.
The pair has also used their mountain ascents to raise funds for Angell Memorial Medical Center, a place that Ryan regards dearly for the exemplary care that Atticus has received at this extraordinary veterinary hospital.
Ryan then shared the poignant story of realizing one day that his beloved Atticus had lost his sight. “I assumed snow blindness,” Ryan said, admitting that he felt terrible about having possibly overexposed his friend to the blinding white. But his local veterinarian, Dr. John Grillo of Newbury Animal Hospital and the veterinary specialists who examined Atticus dismissed snow blindness. They told Ryan that Atticus had probably been going blind for awhile and that Atticus was quite likely already blind when the intrepid dog led Ryan to their most recent mountain summits. A gasp, followed by a hush, filled Jabberwocky’s Green Room.
Fortunately, Atticus’s sight was restored through cataract surgery performed at Bulger Animal Medical Center. But it was an expensive surgery: $4000—money that Ryan didn’t have. “But word got out,” Ryan said, “and my friends here in Newburyport raised the funds to help Atticus.” Ryan’s eyes filled with tears as he recalled the outpouring of love shown his friend.
For his noble mountaineering efforts on behalf of Angell, where Atticus was treated for later health-related conditions, Atticus was honored and presented with the Human Hero Award from MSPCA-Angell, receiving it—while held in Ryan’s arms—during an honors ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
As he thanked the crowd who had come to see them, it was Ryan who appeared honored and grateful for the outpouring of affection. Of following atticus, Ryan told the audience in parting, “It’s a book about friendship. It’s about finding a way to work with creatures we sometimes look down on.” And maybe it’s also about looking into one another’s hearts, whether human animal or nonhuman animal.
following atticus will be on sale September 20, 2011. Look for Tom and Atticus to kick off their official book tour at Jabberwocky! In the meantime, visit Tom And Atticus.blogspot.com to follow Tom and Atticus’s adventures.
Kathleen Downey is the Features Editor for Newburyport Today. She can be reached at Kathleen@Newburyport-Today.com.