Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

Her books on dogs have made her a bestselling author, but her fascinating life as a writer began over 40 years ago in the Kalahari Desert.

By Susan McCarthy

Published June 27, 2000 7:14PM (EDT)

"The Hidden Life of Dogs" was one of those stealth bestsellers that send surprised publishers bounding around the room doing kung fu moves, shouting, "Who's the bomb? I'm the bomb!" The first printing, in August 1993, was 13,000 copies. Within a week Houghton Mifflin had orders for 10,000 more. It spent nearly 10 months on the New York Times bestseller list. There are more than a million copies in print, and literary agents and publishers are still being flooded with manuscripts advertised as "the next 'Hidden Life of Dogs.'" Almost none of them resemble Elizabeth Marshall Thomas' deceptively easy-to-read chronicles of a group of dogs, each described with an engaging insight that seems both novelistic and scientific.

"Hidden Life" was such a surprise success that you might have thought its author had dropped from the sky, but writing brilliantly about dogs was only Thomas' most recent accomplishment, and not her first 15 minutes of fame.

Much of Thomas' work is connected to a transformative experience, a series of unusual African sojourns her family undertook in the early 1950s.

Thomas' father, Laurence Marshall, was a co-founder of Raytheon, started in 1922 as a refrigerator company and now one of the largest industrial corporations in the United States. Raytheon made the first microwave ovens, and Thomas remembers hulking early models her father brought home. The adults tried to devise practical recipes, while Thomas and her younger brother, John, preferred exploding eggs.

Her mother, Lorna Marshall, born in 1898 in the Arizona Territory, was teaching English literature at Mount Holyoke when she married Laurence Marshall.

Elizabeth, born in 1931, was a child mad about animals, from family cats and dogs to the stuffed tigers in the museum. She went to Smith in 1949, but didn't stay long, because her newly retired father was restless. During the war years Laurence Marshall had been preoccupied with Raytheon's production of magnetron tubes for shipboard radar on Allied ships. "He felt time had passed and he hadn't got to know his family," Thomas told me. "He was a very imaginative person. Things didn't seem impossible to him. They seemed doable, and it was just a question of how."

Getting to know his family seemed doable, even though Elizabeth was in college and John was only a year younger. Since John was interested in Africa, Marshall packed up the family and took them to the Kalahari Desert.

Anthropologist friends had told them that little was known about the Bushmen of the Kalahari, so the Marshalls went looking for them, accompanied by various linguists, interpreters and biologists, traveling in four large trucks and a jeep. It took weeks to traverse roadless land to reach the area where the Juwa Bushmen lived, along the borders of what are now Namibia and Botswana.

(It's not true, as at least one anthropologist has taught, that the Marshalls were "in search of a supposed lost city in the center of the Kalahari." "I wonder where you read that," said Thomas austerely. "No, we never thought there was a lost city in the center of the Kalahari. Nor is there one.")

The Juwa Bushmen had a traditional hunting and gathering culture, little affected by the outside world. They traded for knife blades and for wire, which they hammered into arrowheads, and this was their only metal.

"The first time we came to the Kalahari, we spent several months looking for Bushmen," Thomas wrote later. "It was very hard for us to find them because they are shy of any stranger. If they believe that you are coming, they run away like foxes to hide in the grass until you have gone."

The Bushmen eventually revealed themselves, and none of the Marshalls was ever the same. They returned again and again, visiting for as much as a year at a time. Lorna Marshall retrained as an anthropologist, and has written two classic accounts of the Juwa Bushmen. Laurence Marshall spent years in efforts to support the Bushmen through changing often disastrous government policies toward them, principally through importing dryland farming techniques. John Marshall became an anthropologist and a documentary filmmaker (he co-directed, with Frederick Wiseman, the famous "Titicut Follies," shot at a hospital for the criminally insane) and has devoted much of his life to recording the culture of the Juwa and advocating for them, so persistently that from 1958 to 1978 the South African Colonial Administration banned him from Namibia.

Elizabeth eventually returned to college; after Smith she transferred to Radcliffe, where she began writing about her African experiences. At Smith she was in an English class with Sylvia Plath. "She wouldn't have noticed me from that class, but by God I noticed her. You couldn't not. It was very obvious that there was somebody of unparalleled talent," says Thomas.

"I remember a poem she wrote. I remember to this day listening to it in that class." The professor didn't identify the writer. "So I didn't know which student was her or what the name was of the person who wrote this fabulous poem. Later I recognized the stuff from her style, and I knew whose poems we had been listening to."

But Plath had noticed Thomas, too. In Plath's 1963 novel "The Bell Jar," Esther Greenwood, the Plath-like protagonist, facing writer's block, grouses, "How could I write about life when I'd never had a love affair or a baby or even seen anybody die? A girl I knew had just won a prize for a short story about her adventures among the pygmies in Africa. How could I compete with that sort of thing?" (OK, Bushmen aren't Pygmies, but we know where that came from.)

In her junior year at Radcliffe, Thomas wrote a story about the Bushmen, which won a prize in Mademoiselle's short-story contest, as did a story by Plath. (Unlike Plath, Thomas didn't try for the Mademoiselle guest editor gig so memorably recounted in "The Bell Jar.")

"Publishers in those days watched these contests to see who was coming along," Thomas recalls. "So they wrote me and said would I like to write a book? I said, 'Sure, I'll write a book,' never realizing that this was a tremendous honor and all that."

It wasn't a speedy process, because she met and married Stephen Thomas (now a historian and political consultant). "This was what you did in the '50s: You get married, get a job, put your husband through graduate school and have two kids, a girl and a boy. That's what we both knew. So that's what I did. And it was not until the second kid was born that I published this book. You can't write and do all that too, I've found. To my surprise. And horror. And disappointment." She laughs.

The book she finally wrote was "The Harmless People." It describes the life of the Bushmen they visited, and tells the stories of individuals and families. Deeply but almost invisibly informed by her mother's anthropological work, it is written in a spare, invitingly clear style that stunned readers and reviewers (a style that Thomas achieves through "zillions of drafts"). It came out in 1959 and is still in print.

Some years later, during additional research among Bushmen groups in Botswana, Thomas writes, for a while "the anthropologist/Bushman ratio seemed almost 1 to 1." Some of these researchers argued that the Marshall expeditions took an ideological, falsely idyllic view of violence or the lack thereof among the Bushmen, and falsely presented the Kalahari as an arid Shangri-La. This argument was taken up by E.O. Wilson in his 1978 book "On Human Nature."

Thomas says they "went to another group of Bushmen in Botswana, quite a distance from the people we had been visiting, different people altogether, in different circumstances altogether, in a different country, and about 20 years later. They found different things, not surprisingly." She defended her and her mother's observations in the epilogue to the 1989 edition of "The Harmless People," but she doesn't seem interested when I ask her about it, and says she doesn't bother about it. "It's kind of come full circle now, and now our stuff is in ascendancy, and their stuff is being dumped on by new people," she notes. "I don't know if you know the anthropological scene, but it's academia at its depths."

When her children were "small and portable," Thomas took them with her and spent a year in Uganda among the Dodoth, whose pastoral lifestyle was very far from that of the Bushmen. "Warrior Herdsmen" (1965) is her account of that year.

In addition to anthropologically oriented expeditions, Thomas has done field research in natural history. She spent several years studying elephants in U.S. zoos and in Namibia with scientist Katy Payne, who wondered whether elephants might possibly communicate with sounds too low for the human ear -- infrasound -- and who then proved that they did.

Thomas also went on an expedition to Baffin Island, where she observed wolves. "You can do that!" she exclaims. "You don't have to be connected with a university. It's a good way to get funding. But if you can fund it some other way, you can just do it."

Thomas has written two novels of Paleolithic life, "Reindeer Moon" (1987) and "The Animal Wife" (1990), and plans a third. She draws on anthropology, on poetic imagination (you'll find nothing in most anthro texts examining what it would be like for the souls of the dead to become spirit animals) and most of all on her knowledge of daily life in a hunter-gatherer culture to create utterly believable stories of primitive life. They are not disguised accounts of Bushman life being set in ancient Siberia, but they are authentically informed about the realities of life in hunter-gatherer societies.

In these novels mothers die in childbirth, children die, a wolverine bite leads to fatal gangrene, people hunt and kill fuzzy baby animals and the search for firewood is endless. Even the dead who become animal spirits have their troubles. The stories are also accurate about the joys of life, and rich in sensuous detail, like the ecstatic pleasure of a deer rubbing its winter coat off on a pine tree.

My copy of "Reindeer Moon" contains raves from Annie Dillard, Ursula K. LeGuin, Edward Hoagland and John Updike, but also bears the legend "For everyone who loved 'The Clan of the Cave Bear!'" (I can just hear the joyous squeak of the publicist who thought that up.)

The novels could have been written as a rebuttal to fluffy tales of Stone Age romance, but Thomas says she began "Reindeer Moon" before Jean M. Auel's "Clan of the Cave Bear" appeared in 1980. She describes "Cave Bear" as fun to read and says, "I don't have any ax to grind about what other people think Paleolithic people did ... If she wants to think they had video games and used silverware and handkerchiefs, that's OK. For all I know, they did."

But she doesn't find it likely. "It's like Californians on a camping trip," she says. "She needs a spoon and a chair and a handkerchief, and she thinks they would have needed these things too, so what did they use for a chair? She has them pulling up a log and sitting on it. Well, people sit on their heels, they sit on the ground. In real life. What do they use for a spoon? Well, they don't use spoons, they use their fingers. They don't use little squares of leather for a handkerchief, they put their thumb on the side of their nose and go [she utters a sharp snort] mfff!

"The reason I wrote these two books was to [describe] people at a time when the playing field was more level, and we had the same advantages and disadvantages that other species of animals do." She adds, "Her people are as removed from the natural world as we are. I like to write about people who are not removed from the natural world."

Thomas had planned for years to write a book on dogs. Robert Gottlieb, then editor of the New Yorker, asked her to write it as an article for the magazine, which seemed more practicable. But by the time she wrote it, Tina Brown was the New Yorker's editor. Brown had no intention of tamely publishing everything her predecessor had commissioned, and rejected the story, thus losing first crack at a runaway bestseller. "But they paid me anyway, which is very, very nice," says Thomas.

"The Hidden Life of Dogs" got rave reviews and fabulous word of mouth, with enchanted readers telling others to rush out and get the book, and buying extras as gifts.

In "Hidden Life," Thomas tells stories of dogs as seen with the eye of love and with the eye of an unconventional scientist. The story of Maria and Misha, two huskies who fall in love, at first may make readers fearful that they've strayed into Cutie-Pie Land. But it becomes clear that Thomas is a sharp-eyed realist. She elects to say that the two dogs married, rather than that they "formed a pair bond," and backs it up with data on monogamous mate selection in wolves and with her meticulous observations of Misha and Maria.

Thomas also spent many hours studying Misha (a friend's dog), who was in the habit of leaping the fence and roaming the streets of Boston. Thomas followed him, observing his encounters. This novel form of field study produced fascinating observations and, in some readers, fury.

Although "The Hidden Life of Dogs" was widely beloved, it was hated by some professional dog people. They charged that it promoted irresponsible dog ownership -- Misha could have been hit by a car, for example.

See Susan Conant's "Black Ribbon" (one in her popular series of dog-oriented mysteries) for one attack on Thomas ("gee whiz -- a Ph.D. in anthropomorphism") and "Hidden Life" -- "a sad book, the pitiful story of a woman so terrified of a normal, protective human relationship with dogs that she fled the responsibility and mutuality that love entails." Conant's detective, Holly Winter, declares, "Almost everyone ... in the [dog-breeding] fancy loathed the book."

Thomas is philosophical: "I don't worry too much about it."

"Hidden Life" was followed by Thomas' cat book, "The Tribe of Tiger: Cats and Their Culture," also a bestseller. The book's heart had appeared as a long article in the New Yorker about the culture of lions in the Kalahari, and how it had changed. When the Marshalls came to the Kalahari, Bushmen and lions knew each other and treated each other with wary respect. Years later, when Marshall returned, following a period when the government had removed the Bushmen from the area, a new generation of lions who hadn't grown up with humans in the environment weren't sure how you were supposed to behave toward people, and some seemed inclined to check them for edibility.

Thomas' newest book, "The Social Lives of Dogs: The Grace of Canine Company," out this month, returns to the terrain of the Thomas family dogs with a new cast of characters. There is the noble and witty Sundog, a stray of mysteriously moneyed antecedents. (He is abandoned, yet X-rays reveal astoundingly costly surgery in his past.) Sundog becomes disgusted with the media when, after "Hidden Life," TV crews repeatedly descend to film his fastidious way of sharing an ice cream cone with Thomas' husband -- taking turns to take a single lick.

Misty, a costly Belgian shepherd who had spent almost all her life in a crate in the breeder's barn before she came to the Thomases, is a deeply insecure animal who can barely learn to navigate a staircase, but who eventually alerts the family to a fire in Lorna Marshall's apartment, thus presumptively saving her life.

Pearl, whom Thomas calls a sister, is a sturdy, loving dog with a nonstop bark and strong ideas. She feels, for example, that one goes to bed at nightfall and gets up early, and she requires that her sister do so also. "I haven't slept past 5:30 for years," groans Thomas.

Thomas praises Pearl's "excellence in the woods." Not the kind of dog who just wants to race around or chase sticks, Pearl is, like Thomas, an observer, a student of other animals and their traces. Thomas writes, "Thanks to her, I learned more in a week than I would have learned in a year on my own."

While Pearl's barking is incessant, it is not invariant, and Thomas can distinguish what sort of thing she's barking at: "Amazingly, she used one tone for dogs, another, slightly different tone for large nondogs, and a third very different tone for small nondogs such as skunks, porcupines, and ravens." (People, deer and cars are all large nondogs. Coyotes are dogs, but foxes are small nondogs.) There also seems to be a fourth category: "big, dangerous nondogs with teeth and claws that can rip a dog apart," such as bears and mountain lions. What do you say about them? Not a yip.

In another spasm of "Hidden Life" publicity, Thomas was asked to appear on a local television program touting the charms of animals at the shelter. Some were a hard sell and didn't get adopted, but Thomas, a soft touch, went home with a grown cat, two feral kittens and Ruby, a charming dog who had ended up in the shelter merely because she refused to come when called, killed cats and chickens and leaked urine when she slept.

One of Thomas' senior cats, Rajah, forcibly rearranged Ruby's ideas about cats. Her macaw, Rima, changed Ruby's thinking on the bird issue, with what sounds like a full "I will slice you open and snack on your liver" display. Over a long period, Ruby began to copy the other dogs and come when called. Medication lessened the leaking, and Thomas coped by putting absorbent disposable pads in Ruby's bed.

Finally, there was Sheilah, a feral creature who had to be taught that dogs are not permitted to leap into the middle of the dinner table and help themselves from people's plates.

Once again Thomas observes things that no one else has noted, to my knowledge, in all the centuries we've lived with and written about dogs, such as the canine sneeze: "A single, deliberate sneeze is a kind of conclusion, usually after the dog has been having strong feelings, often after punishment or after prominent displays of affection or approval, but also after feelings such as those experienced by Pearl from the scent of her loved ones in Boulder."

Thomas compares the behavior of her own beloved dogs with the dogs in African villages, and comes up with some interesting thoughts about canine domestication, a process she suggests was initiated by the dogs, not by the humans, as is usually suggested.

In "Social Lives," Thomas also confronts what she calls dog fascism, "an unwholesome attitude quite prevalent in this country about the need to rigidly control dogs." She writes: "A castrated or spayed purebred dog who was taken from its mother at an early age, raised entirely by our alien species, and trained to excel in an obedience trial is the paradigm for correct dog management. This is a life as unnatural as that of a circus elephant."

To a dog fascist, there is no such thing as an autonomous dog, nor should there be. "What makes somebody a dog fascist to me is not so much how they get the dog, but what they expect to do with it -- castrate it, force it through obedience school, don't ever let it off its leash, don't ever let it do anything it wants, just control it at all times. The idea that the dog is somehow your enemy and must be controlled at all costs as a sort of underlying philosophy of dog ownership is what I find fascistic," Thomas explains.

But can't that stem from the idea that the dog is not an enemy, but a beloved helpless infant? Thomas agrees that the idea of pets as babies is another source of the wish for complete control, the idea that "it will do things that are bad unless you prevent it from doing them ... I like to think of animals as adults and colleagues." And protection leads to the need for more protection. "It's just like a person: If you don't let the person have any experience, they won't know anything."

Having been attacked for "Hidden Life," Thomas acknowledges that further and fiercer attacks may follow "The Social Lives of Dogs," but she shrugs it off. "Those people are going to attack you if you're on my side of things," she says. "That's to be expected."

Susan McCarthy

Susan McCarthy is a San Francisco freelance writer and the author, with Jeffrey Masson, of "When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals."

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