Good Dogs Don’t Make it to the South Pole by Hans-Olav Thyvold: wise and witty words on the power of companionship direct from man’s best friend

Do you talk to your dog? Not just “walkies” or “good girl” but conversations. More to the point, does your canine join in the conversation? If your answer is yes, then you are going to love Good Dogs Don’t Make it to the South Pole by Hans-Olav Thyvold a quirky, witty and ultimately wise and moving novel that has become an international best-seller.

Tassen is a one-man dog, devoted to The Major, an elderly Norwegian World War Two veteran whose life, apart from walkies and hunting (going shopping) with Tassen, is spent absorbed in history books about the war. When the Major dies, Tassen (the little one) becomes the slightly bewildered companion of his widow, Mrs Thorkildsen.

Overnight his world changes. Gone is the routine. Mrs Thorkildsen is obsessed by the 1911 race by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen to become first to the South Pole, ahead of Britain’s Robert F Scott. And alcohol. Lots of it. Often both at the same time.

Mrs Thorkildsen’s trips to the library tracking down information on the expedition take on new purpose when she couples them with a visit to the neighbouring tavern. Faced with a No Dog rule she simply does what would once have been unthinkable and ties Tassen up outside. At home, she frequently drinks herself into oblivion. And then there’s the mysterious business with the paper and scissors which ends when she introduces Tassen to a huge pack of paper wolves strewn across the living room and informs him are the dogs which accompanied Amundsen to the South Pole, although the vast majority never made it back home again, loosing their lives “for the good of the expedition”.

Worried about her increasingly eccentric behaviour and with an eye on her large, comfortable home, Mrs Thorkildsen’s son and daughter-in-law (Puppy and the Bitch to Tassen) try to manoeuvre her into care home. It’s time for Tassen to paw up and try and protect his new best friend, not least, from herself.

Although humans frequently baffle Tassen, by the end he has worked out exactly the basis of the relation between him and Mrs Thorkildsen: “The best thing you can aspire to in this world is company. Whether it’s for pleasure or pain, a crowning or an execution: everything is better with company. You might say it all went to hell with Mrs Thorkildsen, but you know what? It could have been worse, because Mrs Thorkildsen had me to keep her company. And I had her. That’s what we had in common, her and me, what bound us together.”

Thyvold’s original intention, to write about write about Amundsen’s expedition to the South Pole through the eyes of one of the hundreds of dogs he took with him, was abandoned when he thought the work-in-progress: “Read like writing from a concentration camp.”  Instead he created what he describes as “A contemplation of life, death and intoxication as seen through the eyes of man’s best friend”.

Thyvold is a journalist and broadcaster who has written several books including biographies of Amundsen and Bruce Springsteen. You can hear Thyvold talking about  his book here. Good Dogs Don’t Make it to the South Pole by Hans-Olav is published by Allen&Unwin.


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