Escape the Ordinary – Awesome Award Winners


Is human intelligence a gift or “an occasionally useful plague”? Two Greek gods granted human intelligence to a group of fifteen dogs, then suddenly these dogs were bewildered and eventually divided into two groups – some flourished with their new skill and some others consciously ran away from it. This deeply moving tale is trying to explore an age old question: “What’s the meaning of life?”

Andre Alexis encapsulates many philosophical questions that intrigue most of us in this delightful but compelling apologue about dogs. Fifteen Dogs is Alexis at his best.  It didn’t only win him a Giller but also good sales.  Being in the force of promoting reading and writing, I know how important this means to authors and how difficult to achieve. But Alexis did it.

Alexis’ brilliant storytelling can surely stimulate many of your senses . You can vividly picture what the dogs experienced, feel what they felt, and smell what they smelled. You don’t have to be a dog lover to enjoy this book. Alexis created some amazing endearing characters – Majnoun, the black poodle who had developed a strong friendship with Nina – his waiting for Nina’s return moves every soul. Prince, our playful poet, roamed along Bloor Street and the beaches and kept his spirits high even when his vision was playing tricks on him. Benjy, cunning but perhaps the most unappealing character, you must see a lot of him in mankind! Your emotions are drawn to these animals naturally while Alexis skillfully unfolds this meditative story with many twists.

Alexis also delves in many debatable concepts, such as individual freedom versus pack conformity and tortured knowledge versus mindless happiness. It’s a metaphysical inquiry about “What does it mean to be alive” – to think, to feel, to love, to suffer, to question and to answer? It is a quest to discover the beauty and the perils of human consciousness.

I must also draw the attention of the Vaughan poetry lovers to the poems composed mostly by Prince and other dogs in the book. Each poem in the book contains one of the dogs’ names – check out the interesting explanation on page 173!

Lastly, I would like to take this opportunity to share another intriguing animal story A Beautiful Truth by Colin McAdams – a quite different writing approach, but you will probably be devastated by little Looee’s story.


Below are a few questions offered by Coach House Books for discussion:

  • Hermes and Apollo’s wager is decided by whether or not one of the dogs is happy at the moment of its death. Is it fair to evaluate the quality of one’s life by the quality of one’s end-of-life? How accurate of an evaluation?
  • Who is more cruel, the gods or the dogs? Why?
  • Some readers find themselves more moved by the deaths of the fifteen dogs than they would have been if it had been fifteen humans. Why do we sometimes have more compassion for animals than people? Can you think of examples of this in the real world?

About Heather

Heather is the Librarian II, Literacy and Readers' Advisory, with the Vaughan Public Libraries. Her job is to connect leisure readers and aspiring writers with the endless space of imagination and creation through words in all forms.  |  Meet the team

9 thoughts on “Escape the Ordinary – Awesome Award Winners

  1. Wow, these are some thought-provoking questions! I have only read about a third of the book at this point, but I already have many thoughts about it, and about these questions, though for now I’ll tackle only the last one:

    I think part of what makes it easier (for some people) to have compassion for the dogs is that the story is explicit about the fact that the thoughts, feelings, and choices the dogs are making are entirely because of the weird bet made by the gods, and it seems like maybe they shouldn’t be held (as) responsible for it – after all they’ve been granted human intelligence without the lifetime of upbringing and socialization that children benefit from.

    People definitely have a habit of investing more innocence in animals than people, and we are more likely to blame people for their own misfortunes, perhaps sometimes because it is too hard to face up to the fact that humanity as a whole is so bad at caring for their own.

  2. I think that we have more compassion for the suffering of animals than we sometimes do for human beings because we operate, at least implicitly, under the assumption that human beings are capable of being morally responsible for their actions, and that with moral responsibility comes the possibility of particular human beings sometimes deserving a certain level of suffering. If a person commits a crime, we usually tend to believe the person should be punished accordingly, that is, that they should suffer to a degree proportionate to the degree of severity of their crime. This is because people are responsible for their actions. They reason and deliberate and they choose do this or that action, right or wrong. Actions do not just happen, as it were, they are brought about willfully through human intention. The ultimate expression of this kind of thinking can be found in the concepts of “heaven” and “hell,” with hell being the place where people who have committed the worst crimes are destined to suffer. We may feel that certain people “deserve” to go to a place like hell. Their crimes are so severe that their suffering must be eternal. We tend to think of animals in rather different terms. Animals act out of instinct. They do not reason, they do not think, they do not deliberate. They do what they do. As such, though we may have to restrain animals in certain cases, we do not hold them morally responsible for what they do. Since they are not morally responsible for what they do, we do not normally recognize that they are ever in a position to deserve any amount of suffering. Now, it’s interesting to consider, in this context, the dogs who have been given the power of speech. Are they now, given their newfound capacity to think and reason, capable of moral responsibility? What is the relationship between language and moral responsibility? You might think that since language was thrust upon them in the midst of their lives by two curious gods that they cannot, just like that, now be moral agents. They haven’t chosen to think and speak. How can they now be capable of deserving suffering? However, this also applies to humans. We haven’t chosen to be rational and deliberating creatures capable of using language either. We, like the fifteen dogs, found ourselves in a condition equally not of our choosing, which, in our case, happens to be a condition of rationality. How then can humans be capable of moral responsibility?

  3. I read this book a few months’ back–I picked it up based on reviews and awards, but I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy it. Once I started reading, though, I couldn’t put it down. It does live up to the hype.

    As to cruelty–I would have to say the gods are cruel for playing with lives for their own amusement. I found it fascinating that some of the dogs chose to deal with their new-found “intelligence” by trying to reject it and embrace the ways of dogs.

  4. Thanks for taking such an in-depth look at humanity and opening up this interesting discussion! Are we humans truly capable of moral responsibility? Interesting question. I do often feel helpless in many cases, and the most extreme example is perhaps “I didn’t choose to be born, but I do exist as a human and got entered into some social contract that I didn’t sign.” This reminds me of one of the Stoicism theories that I recently read – life is a “human drama”. We humans are actors, and we don’t get to choose our roles. Who does? The director, whoever that is – the gods, the nature, evolution, depending on what you believe in. In Fifteen Dogs, the director is the irresponsible gods and the careless fates. These dogs were given certain human intelligence, but not all the capabilities. So they suffer more than human. While you are devastated by Athena and Bella’s murder, will you only blame Max and the dogs who plotted the murder or will you also blame the gods? Who is more cruel?

    How is we humans different than these dogs? Perhaps not much. We really don’t have choices on things like illness, aging and death. But as per Sir Ken Robinson, we humans are inherently curious and creative. Hence, we’ve invented many tools and set up some very sophisticated social/political/economical/educational systems to cope with the consequences that the misbehaving gods caused. Perhaps the gods didn’t make humans perfect or the natural selection demands the survival of the fittest (again, depending on what you believe in), therefore, we unavoidably receive many undesirable by-products of human civilization, for example, classes, war and poverty. We humans each is too small to deal with this complexity and unfairness. So we talk about collaboration, team work and advocacy today. Unfortunately, war still exists. Who should be blamed or punished for this kind of social injustice? The gods should take some responsibilities. But I think you do have some other names lining up for this question.

    We humans are born adaptive. Like the old Stoics said, we can’t choose our roles, but we can choose to play our roles well. The definition of playing the roles well is relative, within a social contract and a pre-set framework, from our learned experience, or from our human conscience. But each of us does have certain definition, whether it’s clear or just existing subconsciously.

    The Stoics said, “For death or pain is not formidable, but the fear of pain or death.” They are saying, we can’t escape from death, but we can escape from the dread of it. We can’t change the things that aren’t under our control, but we can change the way we feel about these things. The point is we need to distinguish what is and isn’t under our control, and try to perform the best in our assigned roles. When we do that, we are not blindly living in the pre-set framework – we are actually trying to use our best human intelligence, persevere and progress.

    It’s just my opinion. Hope it makes sense to you.

  5. Really interesting discussion here. It’s not surprising that the conversation took an existential turn – this book does not shy away from “big” issues. In fact, the framing story of the gods at the beginning more or less tells us directly that this is a philosophical experiment. It’s an experiment about language, power, existence and a bunch of other things.

    I’m curious how our reading might change if we didn’t get that framing story with the gods… Maybe it’s a way for us to “buy” the high concept. I suspect it’s effective at making it very clear that this is an allegory – the novel wants us to engage with these “big” issues head on, not as a mere subtext.

    That said – and please don’t hate me for saying this – I did not find the novel captivating from page to page. I thought a short story version would do the trick (pun somewhat intended). Because it’s so much about “ideas,” I found the narrative overshadowed. (Perhaps my summer-mind just wanted something a bit breezier, though…)

    Still, I can’t think of a better novel to encompass the summer reading club’s theme of escaping the ordinary.

  6. This review and discussion have really piqued my curiosity. I would usually ignore a book with a title such as “Fifteen Dogs”, since I am not really a dog lover (not a dog hater either just neutral). However the bigger questions about meaning, human suffering and moral responsibility and the fact that the book won both a Giller and a Roger’s Trust award, mean I am looking forward to reading it soon.

  7. So many great points here!

    I picked this book up when it won the Giller Prize, but I have to agree with David….something about it didn’t grab my interest right away and I dropped it for something else. But this discussion is making me want to pick it back up. I love that the author used such a simple, almost childish concept to explore such philosophical questions. There are so many ironies in life and the “tortured knowledge versus mindless happiness” (as Heather phrased it) is one that I think about a lot. I go back and forth on which one is better, depending on the day.

    As to Heather’s third question, I absolutely love dogs (probably more than people) but I’m not someone who gets more upset about a dog’s death than a person’s. That said, I understand why people do. Animals (especially dogs) are paragons of innocence, while people have the ability to choose between “good and evil” and quite often choose evil (for lack of a better term). You look at the news and you see bombings in Turkey, shootings in Orlando, the countless deaths of African Americans at the hands of police….some days it’s enough to make me give up on humanity. Animals are like a Garden of Eden version of humans, lacking the gift of knowledge but blissful in their ignorance.

    Lastly, it’s fun to see Toronto as the setting, knowing the street names and neighbourhoods mentioned. I appreciate Alexis for not blurring the setting as so often happens in Canadian media.

  8. It’s funny, for the last few years I have been interested in – some may say obsessed with – coincidences. Heather, your comment on the Stoic idea that life is a “human drama” found its way into this web of obsession and I think this event relates to our discussion in a fascinating way. In my exploration of coincidences (i.e., what are they? What is their significance? How are they possible?) I was led to this cool idea, which is a kind of twist on the concept of a human drama. In the drama as you described it, human beings are the actors, and our director, the one who determines the conditions of our existence, can be thought of as god, nature or evolution. In Fifteen Dogs, the director of the drama of the lives of the dogs, the actors, are the two gods, Apollo and Hermes. We can view them as particularly cruel as they subjected the innocent dogs to undue pain and suffering. On this alternative view of the human drama, the director is God, the Universal Self, the Absolute, or whatever you want to call it. Now, the twist is that the actors are also God, the Universal Self, or the Absolute. In this drama, the god determines the often terrible condition in which the actors must exist, but, takes on the role of the actors as well. The cruel and unusual punishment of human existence is a self-imposed punishment, which, in a way, makes calling it “cruel” quite unusual. The tortured is the torturer. The idea of life being a drama takes on new significance. The audience is the director and all the actors. Life is nothing but a drama, a cosmic game of role-play with no purpose other than putting on a good show. This way of thinking is prevalent in classical school of Indian philosophy called Vedanta. If you find these ideas interesting, you should check out this short story from the Argentinian writer Jorge Louis Borges called “Three Versions of Judas”:

  9. Interesting! Daniel, thanks for the expanding conversations and reading recommendations. Coming from a country where we were taught from elementary school that “life is a progressive natural selection process with patterns but intervened by randomness and coincidences”, this kind of conversations definitely fascinate me! It was too much for the little minds to comprehend the puzzling “coincidences” and believe in the “progressive process” of natural selection, but now it’s the chance to see it from different perspectives.

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