Don Mccaig's Nop's Trials Is a Shaggy Sheepdog Story That's Rounding Up Readers
06/04/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT
Nop is a doggedly loyal creature, a black-and-white Border collie whose great passion in his bucolic Virginia life is herding his master's sheep. The hero of Nop's Trials (Crown, $14.95) is also a bit of a philosopher. And, oh yes, he talks in a kind of canine Quakerese. "Bear dog," Nop tells an elkhound, "thy life is a bore, tied up far from freedom, and thou art a bore, too, with thy rage and no real work to do."
Naturally, given the heart of gold pounding beneath his furry breast, Nop has a paw up on other sheepdogs in the hollows. When he is suddenly kidnapped and subjected to a succession of harrowing trials (including confinement in a research laboratory specializing in vivisection), his owner is devastated.
So are readers, who apparently have been captivated by the hero's anthropomorphic antics and not put off a bit by the obscurity of his creator, a sheep farmer named Don McCaig. One of the most ardent fans of this yarn, a kind of Lassie meets Watership Down, is another best-selling author, James (All Things Bright and Beautiful) Herriot. The Yorkshire veterinarian says of Nop's Trials: "Jack London's books made me cry as a small boy, and this one nearly did the same to me now." Adds Jim Wade, McCaig's editor at Crown, "In Nop he never set out to write a best-seller. He wanted to write a book about things he really cared about."
The man responsible for all this passion is a wry, easygoing sort who lives down on the farm near the hamlet of Williamsville (pop. 16) in Virginia's Allegheny Mountains. Author McCaig, 44, and his wife, Anne, 38, are bravely struggling to maintain their country calm amidst the panting over Nop. Book tours and such aside, there are, after all, 80 or so Rambouillet sheep to care for, not to mention tasks like chopping wood, mending fences and growing hay. And then there are the McCaigs' Border collies, Silk, 2, and Pip, 3½, who is Nop's real-life counterpart. The dogs are skilled sheepherders, though Anne's first question when Don suggested buying a work dog was: "Where are you going to find one that types?"
McCaig has been enamored of dogs since his youth in Butte, Mont. ("We learn a lot from them—fundamentals like courage, love and decency.") His father was a power-company executive, his mother a shop owner who often took in stray dogs. Don drifted in and out of colleges and did a two-year hitch in the Marines before finally earning a B.A. in philosophy from Montana State University. McCaig then moved on to Manhattan, where he began writing advertising copy during business hours and fiction in his spare time. As a highly paid copy chief, he created an award-winning antiwar ad in 1968, showing a teddy bear wearing a black arm band. The message: "Some toys hate war." McCaig also takes credit for another award-winning ad, for the nonprofit organization Friends of Animals, showing woodblocks of long-vanished species with the caption: "Extinct is forever." He also did less controversial ads for companies like Chrysler and Eastern Air Lines.
Despite his success in the advertising world, McCaig decided in the early '70s to stop turning out copy. "I had been saying to myself for a good many years that I was really a writer and that I was in advertising temporarily," he says. Figuring that the rural life was the most conducive to his aims, he and wife, Anne, who had worked in a Manhattan day-care center, gathered up their belongings and headed south in a camper.
In Virginia's Highland County they fell in love with a 19th-century log house and settled into a working partnership. To enable Don to write in the mornings, Anne tended the sheep; in the afternoons they shared the heavier chores. "A very attractive feature of this life is cause and effect," says Anne. "If there's no wood on the porch, you get cold," adds McCaig. Anne finishes the thought: "If you don't feed your sheep right, they die. You can't let things slide. You can't get by on your reputation or your ability to baloney around."
Since moving to Virginia, McCaig has published (besides Nop) one book of poetry, three novels and numerous paperbacks written under pseudonyms. Through it all, he has steadfastly performed his agricultural chores—except once. That was the day Don's agent called to say producer Martin Bregman had bought the film rights to Nop in a deal that could yield the author as much as half a million dollars, plus a percentage of the movie profits. For the first time in his 12 pastoral years, Farmer McCaig forgot to milk the cow.