Book 29 of 52: The Wisdom of Donkeys by Andy Merrifield

A friend of mine is going through a rough time right now, and I’d like to bring him a donkey.

Go ahead, laugh. I would have laughed, too. But then I read Andy Merrifield’s The Wisdom of Donkeys: Finding Tranquility in a Chaotic World. So if I could, I would bring him a donkey.

Donkeys, believe it or not, are very docile creatures. Yes, they have that loudbray (because they vocalize when they breathe in AND out), and they can deliver one powerful kick. But they are revered in many cultures (Jesus came rode into Jerusalem on a donkey on Palm Sunday, remember), and kept as pets in many parts of the world.

Merrifield borrows Gribouille, a friend’s donkey, for a long walking journey through the Haute-Auvergne region of southern France. The donkey carries the packs, and serves as Merrifield’s friend and confidante. Portions of The Wisdom of Donkeysare addressed directly to Gribouille — I can imagine Merrifield stopping to write those passages in his notebook with Gribouille by his side.

So why would I want to bring a donkey to my friend? Because, in some portions of the world, they’re used like therapy dogs are used here. They’re brought to the sick, the infirm, and the old, and these little creatures can pull those people out of their sickness and their shells. I read most of The Wisdom of Donkeyswith my dog, Emily, sitting on my lap, so I know the calm animals can bring. But donkeys don’t pester you like terriers do, and I would have given anything at that moment to reach out and stroke a tuft of Gribouille’s fur.

Merrifield’s journey with Gribouille is his therapy. He grew up in Liverpool and, after a childhood trip to New York City, decided he wanted to live there (in the Empire State Building, no less). But his dream, like many dreams, deflated when confronted with reality. His New York life had little to do with the one he imagined, so he packed it in and moved to the French countryside.

It would be easy to call The Wisdom of Donkeysa memoir about finding yourself, something along the lines of Eat, Pray, Love (boy, wouldn’t his publisher be happy about that?). But Merrifield’s recounting of how he got from Manhattan to donkeys is different. It’s more introspective. More contemplative. More poetic, so much so that at times I thought he was slipping into passages of poetry without the line breaks.

The Wisdom of Donkeysis not for everybody. It’s a slow book, much like walking with a donkey is a slow journey. It doesn’t have a focused plot. Merrifield writes flashes of his story around blocks of philosophy, about the mechanics of how donkeys survive, about donkeys in history and literature, and about how donkeys got their reputation (Bottom in Midsummer Night’s Dream did that one for me).

I don’t normally like books like this, but I’m sad to see it end. I liked slowing down. Reading this book was like my few days in Cape May — I’m so on the go that I liked being forced to stop, slow down, and enjoy, to take a long soak in a tub, to walk along the beach with a friend and his dogs, to linger over everything and anything. I don’t do that here. The simples things are lost on me, gobbled up in the rush to do everything at once. So sitting down with The Wisdom of Donkeysgave me permission to stop and take a breath, to enjoy wandering through Merrifield and Gribouille’s eyes. It was a joy, and I’m sad that the book is over, especially since I read the final pages while my neighbor’s voice, which pierces plaster walls, squeaked throughout my room — thank God she rents and will be moving out at some point. Still, even with her shrieking, I still managed to savor the final pages while watching the sun set over the trees a few blocks away. That time, when my bedroom is lighted by sunset, is my favorite time to day. I don’t enjoy it nearly enough. Maybe now I will.

So would my friend benefit from a visit from a donkey? Probably. Where I would get one in Southern New Jersey that did not live on the other side of a zoo fence, I don’t know. But it’s lovely idea, as is The Wisdom of Donkeys.

On a side note — I’ve been taking Andrea Collier King’s essay class, and she made a good point about reading your essay-in-progress and writing a one sentence summarizing what the essay is about. Then take out anything that doesn’t support that sentence. It’s a simple but powerful concept. Merrifield did this in The Wisdom of Donkeys. Even though the narrative shoots many different directions, everything he wrote about had to do with his journey with Gribouille. He didn’t even say he was married until the end of the book. I think anything that had to do with romance, wife, marriage, etc. would have pulled away from the narrative. Smart move. Great book.

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Jen Miller

Jen Miller

Jen A. Miller is a an author and freelance writer. Her memoir, Running a Love Story, was a Philadelphia Inquirer best book of the year. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, SELF, Buzzfeed and the Guardian, among others.


  1. myloveletters on December 15, 2010 at 8:37 am

    This is lovely Jen! I am reading this book slow, one chapter per day in a bookshop that also has a little coffee shop in a corner. I am loving Merrifield's journey and his stories. I love the pace of this book and the pleasure in doing things in my mind, things that I never thought of before, like cleaning a donkey's hooves and ridding it off the gravel stuck in the gaps.

    Thank you for picking this book up and writing about it. Such a pleasure to know someone who's read it, could find none here where I live (South India).

    Mubin Sultan.

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