Nello is a poor kid who becomes an orphan at the age of two when his mother dies in the Ardennes. His grandfather, Jehan Daas, takes him in, and Nello moves to a small village near Antwerp. One day, Nello finds a dog who was almost beaten to death and names him Patrasche. The animal recovers and proves his usefulness by helping Nello deliver milk to his grandfather's clients. Nello then falls in love with Aloise, daughter of Nicholas Cogez, a rich man in the village. He doesn't want his daughter to be seen with a pauper, so Nello tries to earn some money by entering a junior drawing contest.
Then, things turn out for the worse. He loses the contest, Nicholas accuses him of pyromania, and his grandfather dies, so he loses his place to stay. Nello and Patrasche wander lonely and sadly through the streets while the snow of Christmas Eve covers the landscape. Nello and his dog pass by the Cathedral of Antwerp and, since the boy admires painter Peter Paul Rubens, he wants to see his famous painting "The Elevation of the Cross". Again tragedy strikes, because he has no money to pay for the entrance fee. So he leaves and later returns and discovers the church door is open. He enters and is able to see the painting with his own eyes. Next morning Nello and Patrasche are found, frozen to death in front of the painting.
Despite taking place in Belgium, the story was barely known in the country itself (the novel wasn't translated into Dutch until 1967). It is also largely forgotten in the UK. But in Japan, the book is a classic and a clear example of Germans Love David Hasselhoff. Countless Japanese children have read and cried over the sad tale of Nello and his dog. In fact: a large part of Japanese tourism to Antwerp is caused by this tale. Much of the popularity is due to the various anime adaptations of the story, including a 52-episode anime as a part of the Nippon Animation World Masterpiece Theater series in 1975, and a separate 26-episode series by TMS Entertainment, My Patrasche, in 1992. Nippon Animation remade the story as an anime film in 1997; only the movie is available officially in English.
This novel provides examples of:
- Artistic License Geography: This story has been adapted to film or anime many times in Japan. Some versions absolutely didn't do any research for the story. Nello is portrayed as a Dutch boy wearing clogs in a landscape full of tulip fields, which can be found in the Netherlands, but not in Flanders.
- Canine Companion: Patrasche accompanies Nello everywhere.
- Children Are Innocent: Nello never hurts anyone, takes care of the badly injured Patrasche and is innocent of the charge of pyromania made against him.
- Died Happily Ever After: Nello did get to see Rubens' painting, together this his beloved dog, before they both died of hypothermia.
- Downer Ending: A small child and his dog freeze to death while looking at a painting. The 1975 anime, despite pleas from viewers to spare the protagonists' lives, did not, but softened the blow by depicting angels descending from heaven to bear up their souls.
- Engagement Challenge: Nello wants to win a contest so he'll have money to give to his sweetheart and be accepted by her father.
- Famous Last Words: Before freezing to death, Nello whispers to Pastrache's lifeless body: "We shall see His facethere... and He will not part us, I think."
- Ghibli Hills: Isao Takahata worked as a storyboard artist and Hayao Miyazaki as an animator on the 1975 anime series.
- Heartwarming Orphan: Nello.
- Homeless Hero: After his grandfather dies Nello has no place to go.
- Missing Mom: Dies when Nello is two.
- Mood Whiplash: Like Hana no Ko Lunlun, the opening theme of the World Masterpiece Theater adaptation is a cheerful piece and shows the characters being all happy and going off on magical adventures.
- Never Accepted in His Hometown: On a meta level. The book was written by a British author and takes place in Belgium, but in both countries the novel fell into obscurity; only in Japan is it a widely-beloved classic.
- Parental Substitute: Nello's grandfather
- Raised by Grandparents: Only one, the grandfather
- Snow Means Death: Nello freezes to his death.
- Spared by the Adaptation: Nello and Pastrache in both the 1959 and 1999 American films.
- Crossing with Retcon, the trope was also done in this ad for Nissin cup noodles, which starts with the scene from the World Masterpiece Theater anime where Nello and Pastrache are dying in the cathedral. Thanks to Deus ex Machina and Gainax Ending, they survive in the most Mind Screw-y way possible. They did not survive in the series itself despite viewers begging the producers to spare the protagonists.
- Starving Artist: Nello has talent for drawing, but is too poor to even afford materials.
- Together in Death: Nello and Pastrache
- Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Nello again.