The novel is told from the perspective of an adult called Christopher Nix who recounts the story of his family's move to Florida from New Orleans when he was four. The purpose of their move is so that his father can open a tourist attraction that exhibits every breed of dog recognized by the American Kennel Club. The story focuses on his father's "color-blind" approach to racial segregation and various controversies that occur in his life because of it.
It was a dream, then a place, then a memory. My father built it near the Suwannee River. I like to think it was in the heart of Florida, because it was, and is, in my heart. Its name was Dogland.
Some people say you can know others if you know the central incidents that shaped their lives. But an incident is an island in time, and to know the effect of the island on those who land there, you must know something about the river they have traveled.
And I must warn you before we begin, I don't know that river well. I visit that time and place like a ghost with poor vision and little memory. I look up the river and see fog rolling in. I look down the river, and the brightness of the approaching day blinds me. I see shapes moving behind me and beyond me, but who they are and what they do, I cannot say. I will tell what I know is true, and I will invent what I believe is true, and that, I think, is all you can ask any storyteller to do.
I learned the Nix family history from the stories Pa told. Even at the age of four, I suspected that Pa's stories might not be perfectly true. When Pa said we Nixes came to North America as indentured servants working our way out of debtor's prison, Grandma Bette would make a face and say he couldn't know that. When he said we Nixes had Lakota and Ojibwe blood in our veins, Grandma Bette would say she wasn't prejudiced, but it simply wasn't so: she and Pa and his brothers and sisters were dark because her people were Black Dutch, from a part of Holland where everyone had black hair and black eyes. And then Grandma Bette wouldn't say a word for half an hour or more, a very long time for Grandma Bette to be quiet.
Pa usually told the family stories when driving to the store with Little Bit and me, while Ma stayed home with Digger. Little Bit would sit on the front seat of the station wagon with Pa, and I would stand in back, straddling the transmission hump with my arms wrapped over the front seat. After awhile, Little Bit or I would ask for the Little Big Horn story, or the Light-horse Harry Lee story, or another of the Nix family histories, like:
"Tell us 'bout that bad man."
"What bad man is that?"
"Our great-great-great-great-great-great grampa!"
"That's a lot of greats."
"'Bout the bad man!"
"You mean the horse thief?"
"No." The horse thief story was hardly a story at all. A Nix was caught for stealing horses and hung, that was all. Pa only told that story when Grandma Bette was visiting.
"'Bout the bad man."
"An' the train."
"An' the man ran off with his wife."
"That story! Tell us that story."
"Tell us that story. Please?"
"Pretty please. Pretty please tell us that story."
"Well, there's not much to tell."
"Please, Pa! Please, please, please!"
"Well, okay. There was this man--"
"--a Nix." Probably a farmer. Most forgotten Nixes were probably farmers. "And some fellow ran away with his wife." The farmer was old, forty-five or fifty, with stubbly, hollowed cheeks and staring eyes. He wore overalls. His wife was young, barely twenty, pretty and plump and blond. The other man, a lanky salesman with clean-scrubbed skin, was from the city. He wore a nice suit and had a shy smile, and he parted his hair in the middle. "They were on a train. They thought they'd gotten away."
"But they hadn't, had they, Pa!"
"No, they hadn't." The couple sat side by side in the train. The wife-stealer sat by the aisle with his hat in his lap. He wore a green plaid suit, and he kept twisting the hat, a derby, with his smooth, clean fingers. He grinned his shy smile while staring happily into the eyes of the woman. She'd glance at him, glance away, then glance back, then glance away again. She was nervous, not afraid that her husband would find her but merely embarrassed to be so obviously the object of the young man's love. She feared he expected too much of her and would be disappointed once they'd lived together. She loved him as much as he loved her, and she could not believe two people could be so perfectly created for each other.
"He caught up with them, didn't he, Pa?"
"Right in the train, right?"
"That's right." The passenger car's interior was like the train in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, only in color: seats of plush green velvet, heavy drapes by the windows, walls paneled in red oak. Happy people in Sunday clothes waited to depart. Men had moustaches that waggled in easy grins above their cigars. Women carried parasols and wore long dresses. The conductor looked like Captain Kangaroo with his plump belly and his white walrus moustache. He talked to a tiny old woman with sugar-white hair coiled on her head who wore square wire-rimmed glasses with lenses no bigger than cough drops, and no less thick.
"He managed to follow them. Left his farm as if he didn't plan to come back. Came after them with a Bible and a shotgun."
"He caught up with them on the train." The conductor felt someone brush by him, saw someone dressed wrong for traveling by train. He turned away from the old woman, called, Hey, you! The man, the Nix, my ancestor, stopped to look back. The conductor stared at him. The old Nix wore a stiff black jacket over faded overalls. He carried a shotgun at his side. The conductor said, You can't bring that gun in here. The old man looked at the conductor, looked at the shotgun, looked back at the conductor, said, It's for hunting. He walked on.
The young couple did not see or hear the old Nix. The other people in the car did not notice the old Nix. He was an eccentric farmer, nothing more. The old man walked up behind the couple and called the young man's name.
The young man in the plaid suit turned; he had never seen his beloved's husband. He said, Yes? Beside him, the young woman turned, too. She raised her hand to her mouth, but in that moment, no words could come from her lips. The old man never looked at her.
"He said, 'You sure you're so-and-so?' asking the fellow's name again to be safe."
The young man smiled as he nodded. The young woman spoke a word then, perhaps the young man's name, perhaps my ancestor's. As the young man looked toward her, the old man raised the gun--
"--blew the man's brains out, right there in the train."
The shotgun's explosion was loud, but the young woman's scream may have been louder. The old woman covered her wrinkled mouth with a white lace glove. The conductor's eyelids opened wide as if he could not get enough light to his pupils to see what had really happened.
"Then what? Huh, Pa? Then what?"
"Nothing, really. They locked him up. He didn't try to get away or anything. He'd done what he had to do."
"He hung himself in the jail cell." The old man dangled from his belt (I never wondered why my ancestor wore both overalls and a belt) which had become long enough to tie to a convenient wooden beam. The walls of the cell had been built with blocks of gray stone. The old man spun slowly. His boots had holes in them. Sunlight shone obliquely between the bars of the single window. The shadows stretched across the floor, across the old man's faded, battered boots.