The Incredible Life Of Balto, by Meghan McCarthy
The author calls Balto one of the greatest American heroes, and if one is comparing him to people like Sonia Sotomayer, one is inclined to agree. I was slightly familiar with Balto because there have been movies about him (he starred in the first one, actually), and the author does a great job of writing about this dog’s incredible life. As someone who reads a fair amount of books written for children, this book does it right, both with adorable illustrations–Balto is shown as an incredibly adorable dog that just about anyone would want to adopt–as well as thoughtful text. In fact, in reading this book I found the life of Balto to be similar to that of Free Willy, another animal that was a famous Hollywood star animal who suffered a great deal of abuse and inspired a campaign to free the popular and beloved animal from mistreatment. Given these parallels, the life of Balto is a reminder that just like human beings, the animals that are involved in show business, especially those who had genuine heroism in their past, were often cast aside and neglected by those who should have appreciated them and honored them.
In this short but well-researched book (the research the author conducted is at the end), the author manages to tell a complex tale of Balto. Originally a somewhat ordinary and not particularly fast sled dog, Balto led a team of dogs as part of a race against time to provide serum for the town of Nome in dealing with a deadly diphtheria outbreak. With that mission accomplished, one would think that the heroism and interest of the adorable black/brown dog would be done, but that was not the case. The heroism of the sled dog led him and his fellow canines to go to Hollywood, where they appeared in film before being sold to a vaudeville and then a sideshow group that sought to make money off of promoting the animals. Eventually this slow decline in popularity led to Balto being mistreated as part of the sideshow act, and led to a promotion drive on the part of the people of Cleveland to rescue Balto and his fellow dogs from their squalor, which eventually led them to be a part of the Cleveland zoo, beloved by the children there, for the rest of his life. So not only does Balto end up providing insight about the remoteness of Alaska when it comes to logistics, but also provides some sad commentary on the way that celebrities (even animal ones) are treated in the cruel show business machine.
And it is really the show business lesson that is the most poignant. Balto is drawn immensely sympathetically, and is an underdog in a literal sense, a lovable but not particularly fast dog whose persistence helps save lives in Alaska and whose experience with superstardom were painful and unpleasant. Since adorable dogs with big eyes are more sympathetic than the usual post-fame human celebrities, the author is able to give cautionary tales about the sad downward spiral that follows Hollywood fame that hit the reader in a particularly sympathetic place. And Balto is not an isolated example here, as it is quite likely that there are many animal celebrities who share the sad fate of being used and abused by the system once the studios and executives have made their money and the animal is no longer on the tip of everyone’s consciousness. Not every animal in such a situation was able to attract sympathy. Mr. Ed the talking horse was euthanized two years after his show was canceled after suffering from kidney problems and other ailments, and Free Willy, like Balto, had to be freed from abuse after bad publicity over his living conditions. If ever a dog deserved the good life after a celebrity turn, though, it was Balto.