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Nicole Marie Sorkin

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Lone Dog Barking, Author: Raf Leon Dalquist
Friday, March 02, 2012  10:49:00 AM

by Nicole Marie Sorkin



Historical Fiction
Have you ever felt like a “lone dog barking,” unheeded in your persistent concern, despised for making such yapping noises about it, perhaps felt foolish for fussing for “no damn reason?”

Based on a true story, real people and actual events, Lone Dog Barking confirms such feelings for us, and with shocking vindication too.

Lone Dog Barking is set in tiny, isolated Tonopah, Nevada near the U.S. nuclear weapons test site during the Korean Conflict and the buildup of the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

The protagonist, a misnamed, displaced Cherokee tribe-of-one, and murderer put on trial, sparks his part in the quenching of nuclear smoke signals from superpowers around the globe.This unique facet of American history has not been told until now.

What was it like growing up under the hundreds of mushroom clouds at the dawning of the nuclear age? A pack of five young boys bear witness to these events.

In one decade alone leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis with Russia, 339 nuclear weapons detonate above ground at the Nevada test site. That’s one every 10.7 days, on average! These are given the banal term “events” as if they are mere tic marks on a calendar, but in reality they are the thundering heartbeat of a nuclear superpower as Mutually Assured Destruction looms ever larger and closer to reality.

The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) swears that in their vision of the future we’ll never again need electrical power meters. General Curtis LeMay has a powerful vision of having his own personal Air Force, SAC, the Strategic Air Command, with which to “Nuke all them Russkies.” This unique era finds Senator Kefauver banning and burning kids’ comic books and Senator Joe McCarthy looking for communists under everyone’s bed, while Joe Conforte,
Il Senatore of the fabled Mustang Ranch, scrambles to stuff as many whores as possible into beds near the nuclear weapons test site. These were, indeed, strange days.

Culture too explodes all around our real life characters: America falls in love with the Corvette; Les Paul and Mary Ford sing Chanson d’Amor into the Top 40; and Brigitte Bardot fills out that "Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polkadot Bikini.” Playboy Magazine takes birth to show us nearly naked girls, never mind the literary pretension. Thankfully, Mad Magazine pops up like a jack-in-the-box to poke fun at everyone’s grim and dreary seriousness. That swivel-hipped white boy, Elvis, steals rock & roll, but Fats Domino, Little Richard and The Coasters wail onward, unstoppable.

What remains unknown to many Americans is the fact that nuclear testing took place on U.S. grounds during the buildup toward the Cold War with the Soviet Union.  Author Raf Leon Dahlquist experienced this firsthand during his childhood, and lived to tell the tale of an orphaned “tribe-of-one” Cherokee, Pat O’Neil, who is not afraid to stand up and bring to light the terrible effects the nuclear weapons had on the town of Tonopah, Nevada.

The novella’s driving force is the character of Pat O’Neil, through which the reader experiences the anguish, confusion, and anger regarding the widespread illness caused by the radiation emitted by the nuclear explosions. The government assures Americans the nuclear fallout is “safe as snow.” O’Neil uses this phrase many times to mock the government and assure his peers that the many sudden illnesses and deaths in the community are directly related to the testing. He continually points to the livestock who are birthing deformed calves, whose hair is falling out, and are overall sickly and dangerous for human consumption. Because he sees what the testing of nuclear weapons in Nevada is doing to its residents, O’Neil speaks out, but is put down and ridiculed by the town bully named Barney. O’Neil is not only angered by Barney’s resistance to hearing his eye-opening statements about the nuclear fallout, but believes that Barney is responsible for the murder of his lover, Alice. This leads him to kill Barney in a bar, and he is imprisoned and tried for murder. The town stands behind him as he fights for his freedom. In the end, he is sent to prison, and paroled six years later.

Although Lone Dog Barking is a novella based on a true story, it is a well-constructed narrative led by its hero, Pat O’Neil, spotlighting his fearless proclamations about the truth of the matter: the nuclear fallout is resulting in the spread of radiation, and thus cancer to the people living in Tonopah, Nevada. Both child and adult deaths caused by cancer illuminate the danger to people’s health due to government nuclear testing. The reader follows O’Neil, fighting and hoping alongside him, as he spreads the truth of the matter to the public. The reader is drawn into his character and his relationship with Alice, and is just as heartbroken as O’Neil is when he finds his love murdered. The moment he shoots and kills Barney caused both relief and a worry: relief that he got his revenge and worry because imprisonment or death would prevent him from fighting for awareness about the danger of illness caused by nuclear testing in the community.

Because it is a true story, all those involved in the events surrounding Barney’s death and Pat O’Neil’s imprisonment and trial have been included in the novella, making it slightly difficult to keep track of the dozens of characters mentioned in the story. Each chapter introduced at least one new character that pertained to the true events, which may confuse readers and make it difficult to follow. It’s also not completely clear who the narrator is, and whose perspective the story is told through. It seems to be told through O’Neil’s perspective, but the story begins with the point of view of a group of boys who spy on the town and its happenings. With a clearer frame, the narrative can be read without this consistent confusion.

Woven with imagery of whorehouses and town bars, violence in between the townspeople and impeccable dialogue between characters, Lone Dog Barking is a wonderful narrative and would be of interest to readers of historical novels. The dialogue is distinct and promotes strong characterization, drawing the reader in to the story. This is a must read for those with interest in American history, and wars’ affects on Americans just before the Cold War.

Pacific Book Review

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