A few weeks ago I took a close look at the much more recent picturebook with a similar name, Blackdog by Levi Pinfold. In that, I interpret the black dog as agoraphobia or a similar mental illness that descends in winter.
Here is another book with a black dog, a winter setting and a mental illness metaphor, this time from 1991.
For a history of the symbolism of depression and black dogs, see here. (tl;dr: Winston Churchill made it well-known, but the symbolism goes back to medieval times.)
If you’re ever wondering who the main character of a story is ask the following question: Who undergoes the greatest character change?
After thinking carefully about who is the hero of this book — Christina or the Black Dog — I’ve come to the conclusion that the girl and the dog are two halves of the same character.
The first three pages of the story, written in the iterative, explain how happy Christina and the dog are playing together during spring, summer and autumn.
Then we have a switch to the singular: One cold day in winter the wind blew and the trees shivered.
The personification of the trees (‘shivering’), and the image of the girl and her dog walking into the forest, shows how much the girl is part of the landscape. Christina is the winter.
Wind symbolises change. Also, the wind is blowing towards the house, which makes the trees lean in to retrieve her.
It was then Christina first thought how hungry the birds must be now the worms were deep in the ground and there were no seeds to be found.
So she goes to the cupboard and breaks a small piece of bread and scatters the crumbs on the ground, in an image that will immediately put the reader in mind of a scene out of Hansel and Gretel. The forest in Hansel and Gretel is the ultimate ur-Forest — whenever a child character enters a forest we know that danger lurks.
Christina wants to keep feeding the birds through winter.
Using a trick from classic fairytales, Pamela Allen sticks to the rule of threes: first one little bird comes to eat the crumbs; next two little birds, then a magnificent big blue bird.
Who is the opponent in this story? It’s a bit tricky to work out, but not if we start from the idea that in children’s books featuring animals, the animal and child character very often meld into one.
You could argue it’s the blue bird, who probably doesn’t even exist. This figment of Christina’s imagination causes her to obsess, and neglect her dog (and herself).
Christina is Black Dog’s opponent because she is supposed to be taking care of him.
Christina is her own worst enemy.
Depression, obsession and false hope is the overall opponent here.
After getting thinner and thinner from neglect, it is black dog who hatches the plan.
He will climb the tree and pretend to be a bird.
As is usual in children’s books in which the animal hatches the plan, we don’t actually see the plan until it’s carried out. But we do see him lying on the ground with his eyes looking up as if he’s thinking about something.
The ‘set piece’ of the book is when Black Dog leaps from high in the tree.
But it is Christina who has the revelation. We see her pick him up carefully, gently, and carry him inside and lay him on her bed. She cuddles him and tells him she loves him.
We don’t see Christina’s emergence from depression, but we do see that she has now realised she must pay attention to her dog.
In other words, she must take care of herself during this dark time.