Ethan is a kid who stepped off the cover of Boy's Life magazine—one of the issues from the 1950s—and into the real world. In fact, he is pretty much a '50s or '60s kid, except with an '80s name. He longs for summer when he's at school. He loves playing outside, racing go-karts, and going sledding. He swims, fishes, rides horses, and knows his way around a farm. The kid was probably born with a Fire Safety merit badge already attached.
The only thing his idyllic life is missing? A dog.
Before finding Ethan, our dog is taught by his dog mom to "Avoid men at all costs. Fear them" (1.25). But Bailey never once fears Ethan: there is something about him that is warm, loving, and accepting. For Bailey, it's love at first sight: "I guess I had never bothered to consider that there might be such a thing as a boy, but now that I had found one, I thought it was just about the most wonderful concept in the world" (6.18).
When Ethan calls Bailey a "good dog" it's the best thing those fuzzy floppy ears have ever heard.
Although Bailey's life revolves around Ethan, Ethan's life does not revolve around Bailey. It's a cold pill for the dog to swallow—and dogs hate taking pills—when Ethan goes off to college and leaves Bailey behind. Bailey is never bitter about it, though. He understands that humans lead more complicated lives than dogs, and sometimes those lives are pulled in separate directions.
But boy and dog won't be apart forever. Even Bailey senses that at his death that this isn't the last he will see of his boy: "It was because my fate was inextricably linked with theirs. Especially Ethan—that was the bond of a lifetime" (24.59). It's the bond of multiple lifetimes, in fact.
Okay, we made it seem like Ethan led an idyllic childhood, but that's because our dog narrator has the uncanny ability to make everything seem happy, carefree, and idyllic. But Ethan's got cares, y'all, and they're not minor ones.
As Ethan ages, we see that his parents are having marital issues, although the reasoning is never clear. More tragic for Ethan than the threat of impending divorce, though, is a different event: his house is burned down by Todd, a disturbed young man in the neighborhood. Ethan has to jump out of window to escape, and his leg is injured so badly in the process that he can never play football again.
Football was Ethan's dream (of course), and the scholarship he lost was his ticket to college. Bailey knows that Ethan is sad: "A mournful sadness drifted off of him, coupled with a gloomy anger that flared sometimes when all he was doing was sitting there looking out the window" (16.14). But "sad" doesn't begin to cover this tragic accident, a trick of fate that Ethan never really recovers from.
Ethan is dealt kind of a cruel hand. If he were a dog, it would be like someone faking a throw: "Go get it!" they would say, but there would be no ball to be retrieved. The ultimate cruelty.
Years later, Buddy (the dog formerly known as Bailey) hears Ethan say, "I never thought my life would turn out this way" (31.19). Basically, Ethan has let life's hard knocks get the better of him. Buddy, who gets knocked down but always gets up again, takes it upon himself to find Ethan a family. He does this by reuniting Ethan with his childhood sweetheart.
It's almost like Ethan gets resurrected briefly, near the end of his life, to relive the life he wished he had had. Subtly, the message seems to be that although the dog is born and reborn, the humans in the story have only one life. They have to make the best of it.
Heavy stuff, we know.