A Book and its Cover, by Debbie Clarke Moderow. February 13, 201613 Feb 2016, by Dog Journeys in
One year ago, my editor asked me if I had a photo in mind for the cover of my memoir. I dug through piles of images and found no stand-out solution. Then, early one morning around 6 AM, I got onto my computer, “googled” my name, and selected “images.” There it was: Patrick Endres’ photo taken seconds after my dogs and I launched onto the Iditarod Trail. I’d never seen the photo before.
The shot perfectly recorded Juliet and Kanga leading me and my dog team away from the 2003 Iditarod starting line. Somehow Patrick focused on those two girls, rendering myself and the others blurry behind them. Elated with my find, I ran upstairs to wake up Mark.
“Look!! I found the perfect photo of Juliet and Kanga leaving the line in 2003! This is my book’s cover. I know it!” I chattered.
You need to understand that my good husband is not a morning person. After 36 years of marriage, I’ve learned to practice restraint interacting with him until at least 9 AM. Not that day. Mark groaned, rolled over, and managed a groggy few words of approval.
“Really? It shows Kanga and Juliet? Cool!”
Mark knew that if Juliet and Kanga took center stage on the book’s cover, nothing could have made me happier. He understood that more than anything, I wanted to honor the dogs.
In Half in Shade, Judith Kitchen has much to say and show about photographs and the art of memoir. “In the photograph, we look at; the self becomes someone we watch with mild curiosity as the day spools out in three-by-five increments. The shutter clicked, and caught me thus, therefore I am,” she writes.
My calling as a memoirist is to look back “at” events through memory, in order to garner truths lived along the way. Again, in Judith’s eloquent words: “In memory, we walk through. We reenact. We call up the slight shiver as the sun disappeared behind a cloud. We hear again the chatter, the mishmash of sounds as people call to each other, point and click. (Judith Kitchen, Half in Shade)
So this cover photo calls up, for me, the anxious exhilaration of one momentous morning. When my dog team and I took our place at the starting line for the customary two minute countdown, and I knew for certain we were captive to the clock. That rush of time was more than I could bear—as I looked to the smiling crowd, to young school kids cheering and holding up signs with my name. With my nerves churning beyond control, I sought composure by walking up the gangline, patting and talking to each of my dogs.
When I reached leaders Juliet and Kanga, the clock no longer mattered. I’d lost myself in the ceremonial moment: the “present” where dogs always live. I knelt in the snow and played with Juliet, as she wiggled and gargled with glee. I stroked Kanga’s tight muscled back, trying to calm her. With my arms around my lead dogs, we celebrated our hard-earned starting line. Until a tight grasp on my shoulder and a stern voice delivered me back to reality.
“Debbie, that’s enough. Go to your sled. Now!” The race marshall’s words demanded my complete attention. From the memoir, here’s what happened next:
I run to my sled, past laughing volunteers, When one of the sled holders asks me if I’m ready, I say no but realize that it doesn’t matter. He pulls my snow hook anchor as I step onto the runners, and before I can draw half a breath, the dogs charge and the sled rockets forward. The power of sixteen is something I’ve never felt before.
A series of expletives spew from my mouth—that’s what I’m told later by friends watching. My heavy sled lurches to the side into a deep cockeyed rut where thirty one mushers have stood on their brakes ahead of me. Somehow I manage to hold on. …The air cools my face, and there’s panting and the rhythm of sixty-four paws on snow. Dog collars jingle and well-wishers, standing in clusters along the trail, cheer us on our way.
And so we were off. It turns out that within seconds— and a few clicks from the camera shutter—Patrick Endres did something magical: he recorded an instant in time. Twelve years later on a February morning, I discovered the cover for my book. His precise focus captured my leaders and the rest of us that followed them. The image celebrated the heart of my story.
Endres took another photo as we moved past him.
In this image, I’ve just uttered the expletives and managed to stay upright as we surged in and out of the rutted chute. I’m gulping the cool air of momentum. At last I’ve shifted my gaze, from the starting line to the upcoming cycle of days and nights when we would travel the Iditarod Trail.
My smile in this photo suggests more relaxation than I recall. That’s actually a look of surrender on my face—a giving-in to the commitment required by 1000 wilderness miles. This photo records a “rookie’s launching.” I didn’t yet comprehend the powerful, perplexing, and life-altering dynamic that my marathon huskies and I would soon share.
As I write this blog I think of so many other times in life like this one. The speaking of marriage vows, the birth of our first child, the writing of an opening scene of a book, the first time riding a horse. You don’t need to run Iditarod to live as a rookie, catapulting into unfamiliar terrain. Sometimes we have no choice but to go, and at others we’ve long planned the escapade. Sometimes photographers capture our iconic “beginnings.” The resulting images have a life of their own; by documenting the flash of an instant, they illuminate ever new angles of perspective.
Here are a few more of Judith Kitchen’s words, “A photograph sparks reverie and speculation. No two viewers will see it exactly the same way.”
Maybe that’s why I’m so thrilled with the cover of my book and this photo that followed. Today, thirteen years after a photographer stood on a dogsledding trail clicking his camera, his images spark a new conversation. One between a writer who has tried to honor her dogs and make sense of their journey—and her long-awaited readers, who might just pick up the book and engage with its cover.