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PLOT SUMMARY FOR JUST BILL, a fable
Following an exciting flash-forward prologue, the story begins on a May evening in Naples, Florida at the Donegal Golf and Country Club.
From outside Glenda and Cliff Gilmore’s pool enclosure, four dogs watch as a grieving Glenda pours out her heart to Hotspur, her husband’s border collie. Two hours earlier, Glenda was shopping when Cliff died playing Frisbee with Hotspur. Much younger than Cliff, and a former model, Glenda is the object of gossip and dislike among the older wives at Donegal.
The reader is next introduced to Bill and his family. The dog is seen as both simple and sympathetic, but a certain dislike is revealed in his master’s wife. She objected when her husband brought home a stray.
From here, the story develops three plot lines. Neglected by his dead master’s grieving widow, the high-energy Hotspur grows frenzied. Emma, a poodle, loves her refined, articulate mistress. But at eighty-four, “Madame” is starting to slip. She’s been getting traffic tickets lately, and is more forgetful.
Most important are events with Bill’s family. His master’s son has remarried, and has a new baby. The three arrive for a visit, along with two older children from the father’s first marriage. Ten-year-old Ruby used to be the light of her dad’s life, but not now.
Soon after, a thunderstorm terrifies Bill. With his master out of the house, a silent bond is established when Ruby stays with the dog until the storm subsides. But an accident occurs that leads a frightened Ruby to tell a lie.
Out of this untruth rises the novel’s central conflict. With the onset of hurricane season, Bill’s family makes ready to head north to their lake home in Michigan. Bill eagerly awaits the trip, but because of Ruby’s lie, his master reluctantly delivers his dog to an animal shelter.
From this point, Bill’s story is interspersed with that of his human family. The big dog is adopted by a young man who wants a guard dog. When his house is robbed, he returns Bill to the shelter. Days later, in the confusion caused by a tropical storm, Bill escapes. Running along a storm-lashed highway (the flash-forward scene in the prologue), Bill smells the Donegal Golf Club, his old home. He dashes through the lightning-charged golf course, makes it to his master’s house and takes shelter under a patio table.
In the following days, the dog forages for food. He is poisoned. When a girl comes to service his master’s swimming pool, she calls Animal Services to collect the dying animal.
Before this happens, other dogs communicate recent events at the club. Emma is gone, her mistress now in assisted-living. As for two dachshunds seen earlier, they never flew north this year. Their owners are fighting, and the reader understands risky investments have ruined them.
Up in Michigan, nothing is going well. Bill’s master can’t help resenting having been forced to give up his dog. While his son supervises the building of a new house, the family is staying at the lake with the grandparents. There, a sad, guilty Ruby has retreated into games and crafts. It is decided she will fly down with her grandfather to check on the Naples house.
And all summer, Glenda Gilmore has been grieving over her dead husband. When she learns about a sick dog found at a neighbor’s, she goes to the shelter. The attendant who let Bill escape feels responsible. Bill seems to have no chance, but the girl gives Glenda hope.
From here to the end of the novel, the value and power of the connection between dogs and people is concentrated in the bond that develops between Ruby and Glenda. The grandfather comes to see the two have united in their effort to save his dog. He knows what his wife would say about allowing Ruby to stay at “the floozy’s,” so he conceals it. Something important is going on between the widow and little girl.
Parallels between pets and humans are obvious in Just Bill. In our time, what is there to do but make leaps of faith, and hope for the best? The novel’s central message is both simple and profound: kindness is fundamental to us, and our love of dogs contributes to it.