Jenna Blum grabs her laptop excitedly and tilts it toward her window. She squints at the screen, eyes darting past the cherry tree blossoms that have reached full bloom, and points the camera toward a bench in the distance. When she turns back, there’s a brief flash of awareness, as she realizes she doesn’t really need to play tour guide.
The first lines of her first memoir, Woodrow on the Bench (Harper, Oct.), offer the bench’s exact location: across the street from her apartment in Boston’s Back Bay, on a greenway, nestled between old-growth oak and cottonwood trees. Twice a day, every day, until his last day, Blum’s black Lab, Woodrow, would pull his owner toward his favorite spot: his bench. He was rapidly growing weaker from age and congestive heart failure, and this bench was both as far as he could make it and as far as he wanted to go. Quickly it became more than just a few planks of wood bonded together by iron; it was Blum’s cherished space, as well.
“The weird thing about this—and I realized it just this instant—is that I usually write fiction, so I can’t actually take people to the settings I write about,” Blum says. “Or, I can, but it’s all research. Now, it’s like, ‘Oh my God, this is my life.’ ”
Blum has been writing for most of her 51 years (she won Seventeen’s National Fiction Contest when she was 16), but this is her first foray into nonfiction, and the notion that the places and people in the book exist outside of her mind seems to be hitting her. At one point, as she’s explaining one of the lessons she learned while writing the memoir, she pauses to note, “It’s weird to do the story behind the story, because you already know the story behind the story.”
Blum is perhaps best known for her 2004 historical novel, Those Who Save Us, which spent more than a year on the New York Times bestseller list and is about a mother and daughter who are liberated from Buchenwald. Blum has written two other novels, The Stormchasers and The Lost Family), and is a champion of other authors, teaching master novel and marketing workshops for Grub Street Writers, where she has been an instructor for more than two decades. During the pandemic, she cofounded the social media promotion group A Mighty Blaze with fellow author Caroline Leavitt, to help authors who had their book tours canceled.
“I just did that out of sheer indignation that my friends were having their book tours canceled, because I know how much that means,” Blum says. “A lot of authors did not mind. I mind desperately. I love to connect with people in person, and I think I write books to connect with people.”
Highlighting a shared experience and building relationships was a driving force for Blum in writing Woodrow on the Bench; the memoir is centered on the life and death of a dog and is also about the universal pain of loss and grief, and the power of community to help us endure that struggle. A little more than a year before Woodrow died, Blum’s mother died from breast cancer. In navigating the aftermath of her death, Blum considered the impending impact of losing Woodrow as well. Through the beginnings and endings of relationships, and Blum’s decision not to have children, Woodrow has always been there. What would life be like when, one day, he’s not there?
This notion, that Blum’s entire emotional life was tied to an animal that she knew she’d outlive, runs through the book. Instead of paralyzing her into inaction, Woodrow’s fate became a catalyst, allowing her, after a lifetime of staunch self-reliance, to finally let people in.
Though Blum has written about the ways people process trauma in her novels, writing about her own experience, and making herself the central character, was something new. It wasn’t so much the storytelling that was challenging. “Telling that story as truthfully and as accurately as possible, and leaving the boring stuff out” was easy, she says. “What was hard was the vulnerability. When you’re writing fiction, it’s all about concealment. You’re writing about your emotions, but you’re disguising it in somebody else’s stories. The emotions are all real, but the story is made up, so it’s like you’re hiding your underpants. With memoir, it’s more like, ‘Underpants! Look, people, here’s my underwear! And it’s granny underwear! I wear it too! Don’t you feel better?’ That’s kind of what writing a memoir is like.”
Where Blum succeeds most noticeably is in bringing a mix of heart, levity, and empathy to a story that we know from the outset will end with profound sadness. The notion that a memoir should allow its readers to feel a little less alone in their own struggles is, she says, what ultimately drove her to dig deeper than the dog-as-savior trope.
Blum challenges the way her parents equated asking for help with weakness and delves into how adults struggle to ask for help even when it’s needed. She explores the incredible power of community as she paints loving portraits of the friends and strangers who helped her take Woodrow across busy streets as his legs began to fail, brought her food when Woodrow was too sick to be left alone, and, ultimately, surrounded her with around-the-clock care after Woodrow died. Exploring the relationship between the death of her mother and that of her dog, she illustrates how loss is devastating in any form.
It was this ability to make a book about a dog into something that would resonate with any reader that excited Blum’s editor, Sara Nelson at Harper. Nelson had worked with Blum on The Lost Family, another historical novel set during WWII, and describes herself as a “medium-level dog person.” That she didn’t especially care for canines but fell for the book, she explains, spoke volumes. She knew Blum’s voice and mastery of character development would make the book appealing to readers, regardless of how they feel about dogs.
“What I’m looking for, in fiction or nonfiction, is a voice that is true and clear,” Nelson says. “Whether she’s writing fiction or nonfiction, Jenna inhabits her story and her characters—even if that character is not explicitly herself—in a wonderful way.”
When Blum sat down to write Woodrow on the Bench, she didn’t intend for it to be quite so personal. “The book started as a love note to Woodrow—as a memorial to him,” she says. “And also to the bench—to the extraordinary nature of being in one place and learning that all you have to do to be part of the community is show up consistently.”
Woodrow on the Bench evolved, though, and soon became a love letter to all the people Blum connected with through Woodrow—or as she puts it, to “every single person who stopped at that bench. It didn’t matter if it was every day, like the dog moms, or a stranger who showed up once and sat and told me a story.”
Alyssa Ages is a journalist in Toronto. Her forthcoming book, The Secrets of Giants (Avery), is about the life-changing impact of physical strength.