PIT'S LETTER IS not a tale about a dog with a loving family, a dog bound to join the ranks of Lassie and Old Yeller in the annals of canine lore. He's cheery enough when we meet him in the first frames of this new work by illustrator and animal-rights activist Sue Coe. Here is a dog with a wagging tongue and a healthy glow, a dog waiting for us to fall in love. Don't be fooled. What follows is a creepy tale of lab experimentation, a book that will force the pet lover to blanche in unease.
Coe's narrator is the hapless canine Pit, whose story takes the form of a letter to her only surviving sibling in the litter, a note that is part torture memoir and part classic story of a young boy and his dog. When Pit first meets his owner, the minimalist black-and-white drawing captures the simple beauty of a boy lovingly cradling his dog. Quickly, the innocence of that moment fades into an unsettling frame of boys, crowded around a fire, pulling wings off moths. Pit recounts these moments to her sister and through this narration and Coe's artwork, we learn about the tragic nature of her life: her puppy days, her abandonment by her human family, and finally the suffering that she experiences as a living piece of data.
Coe is a skilled artist who uses illustrations to propel her agenda, and often these images eclipse the storytelling itself. In her previous work, Dead Meat, Coe evoked critical comparisons to Upton Sinclair and The Jungle by creating a visual feast of the horrors of slaughterhouses. This time, the scientific community instead of the meat industry faces the brunt of Coe's exaggerated brush. No scientist is safe. Pit recounts the story of how her young owner becomes enamored with conducting experiments in school: "He grew excited and passionate when he thought about trying to do things no one had even done before," Pit recalls. "I believe it was his biology class that set him on the path that would change his life and mine." Next, Coe draws young kids in a classroom dissecting frogs, an image that could be used to lobby for increased school funding. The lab is dark and the students look more like malnourished zombies, grabbing and picking at the frogs, than like students who are learning.
In another frame, we see what might be the older version of these kids, as scientists in a laboratory. This time, the lab is a Bosch-worthy inferno of enervated animals and their scientific tormenters. Pit is not a bystander; she is the one being tortured along with thousands of other confined animals, row after row of them, who are being poked, prodded, and dissected. The scientists, painted with ghoulish skeletal expressions, experiment and discard. As one heaping cart of dead, scarred animals is carted away, another fresh batch of cute, Kodak-worthy pets appears. Coe's artwork is chilling and detailed, but her message seems simple and stereotyped: Scientists are evil.
The book ends not with the wagging tongue of a happy-go-lucky canine but with the whimpering look of a dejected dog. Above the image is Coe's final attempt at persuasion: "This book is dedicated to the rescued: Lucy, Hilda, Spike, and Pencil." Is this supposed to be encouraging?