Nancy Horan is the author of the bestselling “Loving Frank,” a fictionalized account of the life of Frank Lloyd Wright. Her new novel is the story of the dramatic marriage of Robert Louis Stevenson and his American wife, Fanny. Here’s how it begins.
“Where are the dogs?” Sammy asked, staring up at her.
Fanny Osbourne stood at the boat’s rail, holding an umbrella against the August drizzle. Her feet were planted apart, and each of her boys leaned against a leg. Around them, a forest of masts creaked in the dark harbor. She searched the distance for the shape of a city. Here and there smudges of light promised Antwerp was waiting, just beyond the pier.
“We’ll see the dogs tomorrow,” she told him.
“Are they sleeping now?” the boy asked.
“Yes, they’re surely sleeping.”
Lanterns illuminated the other passengers, whose weary faces reflected her own fatigue. After a ten-day Atlantic crossing, she and the children had transferred to this paddleboat for the tail end of their journey, across the English Channel to Antwerp. Now they huddled on deck among the others — mostly American and English businessmen — waiting for some sign that they could disembark.
Fanny had begun spinning stories about the famous cart-pulling dogs of Antwerp soon after they boarded the ship in New York. As her sons’ patience waned during the long trip, the dogs’ feats became increasingly more fantastic. They swam out to sea to rescue the drowning, dug through the mud to unearth gold, gripped trousers in their teeth and pulled old men out of burning buildings. When they weren’t busy delivering milk around town, the dogs carried children through the cobblestone streets, calling upon bakers who handed out sugar-dusted cakes and apple fritters. Now, moored a few yards away from the great port city, Fanny hoped that the dog cart was not a thing of the past in Antwerp these days.