Scent of the Missing

Book Review: Scent of the Missing by Susannah Charleson

Review by Sarah Meikle

I thought I would give readers a break from the books about service dogs this issue (lest I bore you with my personal penchant for the subject) and review one of the most emotive, well-written dog books I have ever read, Susannah Charleson’s Scent of the Missing.

I hesitate to call Charleson’s narrative a “dog book”, though it is very much that, as it seems an unsubstantial categorization, and oversimplification, of such a dynamic and expertly crafted book.

Scent of the Missing is the story of Charleson’s partnership with Puzzle, her Golden Retriever, and their experiences training as a search and rescue team. It is a stirring memoire composed of elegant, palpable prose that moved me to both laughter and tears. It is an adventure story full of suspense and an insightful celebration of a woman partnering with a dog to create a life that her dog will love, a life full of purpose, skill and accomplishment.

Charleson’s tale sits astride a tapestry of other stories, other people’s stories: stories of missing teenage girls, missing children, and missing elders. Each story of the missing person is stitched with the threads of information passed on to rescuers and searchers by officials and facts and rumors garnished from local onlookers and passersby. The multitudes of missing cause the mind to swim in the murky waters of tragedy, of violence and hardship.

Some are found by the dog-human teams scouring the wilderness and neighborhoods, and returned safely home with sighs of relief and celebratory calls.  More often than not, however, the mysteries the teams unravel by chasing scent and paw through brush and bramble end in travesty, in sadness, in the discovery of a cadaver, although even those discoveries are also celebrations of sorts. They are, at least, answers. They are conclusions. They mark the transition from “is” to “was” in the descriptions of the missing. They also, in an uncomfortable irony, mark the success of the search and rescue teams.

As such, you might expect such a read to be a fascinating but overwhelmingly morbid journey. Yet, Scent of the Missing is surprisingly uplifting and sweet.

Charleson artfully weaves her personal journey of growth and emotion through the magnanimous undertaking of training her dog Puzzle. She tenderly reveals the history that led her to seek out such lonesome work. Her sharing creates an intimacy that is relatable, though few have likely shared such experiences.

Charleson and Puzzle’s dedication, as well as the dedication of the other search and rescue human-dog teams they train and search with, is inspiring. It moves readers to pay homage to search and rescue teams everywhere.

Most will likely be surprised to learn that all search and rescue teams are volunteers.  These hardworking, lifesaving teams, often heed the call to action across great distances, often even flying to locations at their own expense.  They enthusiastically brave river crossings, snakes, prickers and formidable landscapes into the unknown.  They tear themselves from the warmth of their beds in the middle of the night to don boots and suits made for hardship.  They time themselves until their responses have them in their cars careening toward those in need in a handful of minutes.

The training the search and rescue teams undergo is equally awe-inspiring.  They systematically stage scenarios that will present their dogs with the challenges they may encounter on future searches.  They take turns being the “cadaver” waiting to be found, often crammed into uncomfortable, dirty, creepy places while they wait in the hopes of being found. They learn to distinguish between the smells of dead animals and humans. They resign themselves to pausing their searches as the light of day fades only to wrack their brains all night reliving the search of the day to ensure they handled the burden of their responsibility effectively.

You may be wondering where in this the laughter is found.  I can only assure you it is there. It is in the minutia of every description of Charleson’s actions and feelings and the exploits of Puzzle as she learns.

Scent of the Missing is a page turner, a book that will keep you reading long after the time you intended to go to sleep; a book that beckons you to steal away a few more pages when you wake, though you know your morning schedule doesn’t allow for leisure reading time.

For those more partial to audiobooks, Scent of the Missing can also be found on Audible and it is brilliantly narrated by the author herself.  Her dulcet tones of Charleson’s voice highlights her poetic, lush and lyrical writing style. Her timing is impeccable, perfectly digestible and impassioned, poignant, and weighted with emotion.

Whether you chose to hear it or read it, Scent of the Missing is a pure joy that you will be reluctant to finish. It is an adventure you won’t want to end; one you might not have expected to relish so much, considering the subject matter, but that you assuredly will. Enjoy.

© 2015 Sarah Meikle

Sarah Meikle is a life-long dog lover and the founder and executive director of Diggity Dogs Service Dogs in Shelburn Falls, MA, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that specializes in psychiatric and medical alert service dogs. Kiwi, her gorgeous rescue mutt, inspires her daily.