Sheila Burnford is most known for an earlier book she wrote, The Incredible Journey. That book is in the children’s section of the library, although Burnford did not write it as a children’s book. Bel Ria, published 16 years after The Incredible Journey, is similar to Journey in that its chief character is an animal. Interestingly enough, we observe the dog (who ends up with the name Bel Ria) and the other animals in the story without any inside information. That is, we see their behavior, but can only guess at what they are thinking and feeling. This is no mean feat for a writer, as the story is about Bel Ria’s connections with and loyalty to the people she meets within the tortured landscape of World War II. But just as many can “read” animals without speech, so can Burnford, and she passes that knowledge on to us, her readers.
Interestingly enough, The Incredible Journey was first made into a movie in 1963, and was true to the book in that we just “watched” the animals on their journey. When the movie was remade thirty years later, Disney decided to give the animals human voices. Needless to say, no purist’s dissent was heard, and the movie did very well—even generating a sequel a few years later. Nowadays the publishing world is full of either books with animals that narrate their stories to us directly, or with a person who speaks for the animal, letting us know their innermost thoughts.
Keeping this trend in mind, Bel Ria is fully refreshing in that we aren’t given answers about the animals’ behaviors, just explanation and background about the humans in the story. Not knowing Bel Ria’s inner life builds the mystery of the story, for us and for the people who grow to love this dog with a hidden past.
Bel Ria was first a performing dog travelling with Gypsies in France, where a British soldier retreating before the Germans encounters their band. He helps them with a broken axle and they in turn hide him for a day and a half from a German patrol. After their parting, he learns the Gypsies died from bombing and the dog comes after him, as its only link with its former masters. He doesn’t want it, but it can’t be driven away, managing to even sneak onto the transport ship taking the soldier back to England. One event follows another, and suffice it to say that a bond is forged with the animal, not a sentimental one but one recognizing the dog’s courage and gifts, and its loyalty. The dog passes to other humans through further disasters of war and the disruptions in communication and connection that these disasters left in their wake.
Bel Ria, as the dog is finally known, is worth reading about because he gives that connection back. He does this by giving his loyalty to those people who just happen to be in his way—either chosen by others or by himself. But there’s something or someone he’s waiting for, and there are intimations about this throughout the book. Just from his manner, just from the dog’s time spent watching and gazing far off. It’s a tribute to Sheila Burnford’s writing that this anticipation is finally fulfilled. What man and time has torn asunder, is made up in Bel Ria’s life—to find again what he was to his first mistress, and what he was with her. Somehow, life mends itself, with caring and duty done along the way—to a stray dog, to men struggling in oil-infested waters, to an old woman trapped under a bombed outbuilding.