The 750-pound pig who came home to stay

Love comes in many forms. An unwanted runt piglet was one of the more surprising.

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I once watched a segment about pigs on "Animal Planet." It featured a farmer who kept one as a pet. I didn't see more than a few moments, but it was easily enough to grasp that pigs are intelligent, affectionate creatures. The pig in question writhed in joy at the approach of her beloved guardian. Despite her enormous girth and total absence of glossy black fur, she reminded me remarkably of my dog.

I've hardly ever been able to eat pork since. So I'll issue a warning right up front about The Good Good Pig: The Extraordinary Life of Christopher Hogwood. If you're comfortably carnivorous and want to remain so, don't pick up this book. Otherwise, I'd advise you to hasten to add it to your summer reading list. It's the lovely true tale of the enormous, amiable porcine personality who lived with (and delighted) naturalist and author Sy Montgomery and her husband (the writer Howard Mansfield) for 14 years.

The study of animals is both Montgomery's passion and her profession. But more typically she has spent her time trailing emu in Australia, swimming with pink dolphins in Brazil, and negotiating with man-eating tigers in India. Although she and her husband live in New Hampshire farm country, apart from a few chickens, they had done little prior tending of livestock.

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But when a pair of hippie farmers (friends who "always looked as if they had just woken up refreshed from sleeping in a pile of leaves somewhere, perhaps with elves in attendance") handed them an ailing and unwanted runt pig and told them that they were the creature's last chance, they never hesitated.

They dubbed the piglet - who had "enormous ears and black and white spots, and a black patch over one eye" - Christopher Hogwood in honor of the musicologist of the same name. The scrawny runt came home with them in a shoebox, but when he finally died (14 years later - an unusually long life for a pig) a backhoe was required to dig his grave as he had reached 750 pounds.

Feeding, housing, and grooming an animal of Christopher's size are serious challenges. But confining him proves to be perhaps hardest of all. Smart enough to free himself from both pen and harness and large enough that he is virtually unstoppable, Christopher regularly enjoys illicit strolls in the neighborhood.

In so doing, his cheerful good nature makes him a remarkably popular pig and a superb ambassador, both for his own species and for his human family. Montgomery goes out of her way to stress that she is not a people person. ("My innate idea of a great conversation starter is something like: 'A blue whale's tongue weighs as much as an elephant,' " she confesses.) But Christopher's breezy charm and profound joie de vivre earn him so many friends that the love spills back on Montgomery, bringing children, new neighbors, and even a garden into her life, filling spaces she had not known were empty.

The story of Christopher Hogwood is undeniably a love story. But Montgomery is too shrewd a writer to slip into easy sentimentality. There is a bracing quality to her thoughtful prose, and she manages to bring the stories of the loss of both her parents, their painful refusal to acknowledge her marriage, and other facets of her own emotional life into play in a fashion that is never less than dignified.

Yet such deeper veins of feeling serve as a kind of a bass line to this story, adding an underlying dimension to the lighter grace notes that keep it so sweet.

One good reason to read this book is to vicariously enjoy a taste of life in rural New Hampshire (where "the only reason you'd lock your car was if you didn't want people leaving zucchini in the backseat of your car while you were at church.") Another is to glean a fascinating tidbit or two about pigs. (They adore classical music, pumpkins, and bellyrubs - who knew?) But the chief pleasure of this book comes from understanding, as Montgomery writes, that "a great soul can appear among us at any time, in the form of any creature." Christopher Hogwood was such a one.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor. Send your comments here.

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