[caption id="attachment_10117" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Portraits of champion dogs line the walls of the “Big House,” while taxidermy trophies of shoots past tell the sporting story of the Baker family. Photography by Gabriel Hanway[/caption]
When I told Slade Sykes I’d just finished The Ninth Pup, he said, “Oh, yeah, Tommy Word. I’ve read all his books.” Well, sure: Word’s stories are fictionalized accounts of the dog trainer, dog handler and land manager’s own North Florida experiences. Sykes told me, half joking, that he’d been hired by the Bakers to keep him from poaching. That’s right out of a Tom Word story. So are the upper- and the underhanded tricks of the field trial handler trying to outwit a competitor and outguess a judge. As a sportsman and a lawyer with more than 50 years’ experience in estate law—“advising individuals about their wealth and how to protect it from taxes and greedy spouses of children,” as he writes on his website—Word is the quail plantation insider’s insider. In his story collections, None Held Back, A Little Competition, The Ninth Pup and The Curmudgeons, Word explores the cultural tensions of class and race, especially how the local folk strive and strategize to mesh their inherited knowledge of the land and its denizens with the grand schemes of the gentry, all seen through the focusing lens of field trial competition and the love of dogs. Part Turgenev, part O’Henry, his tales tug on your heartstrings while slipping you a painless, even tasty, lesson in Florida history.