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Book Review

A dog’s-eye view of survival, humanity

By Michael D. Langan
May 26, 2010

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What if you were a 4-year-old boy, abandoned in Moscow in the bitter winter cold? Would you wander off with a pack of feral dogs and, over time, assimilate to the point of becoming one of them? Preposterous questions?

Yet these are the premises of “Dog Boy,’’ a disturbing novel by Australian writer Eva Hornung (also known as Eva Sallis), who has won several Australian writing prizes and was nominated for that nation’s National Fiction Award.

Hornung took her inspiration from the apparently true account of a Russian boy named Ivan Mishukov, who lived with a pack of dogs for a period of two years before being discovered in the late 1990s at age 6. Ivan had run away from a home where adults had abused him.

In “Dog Boy,’’ the main character, Romochka, left alone by his mother and uncle, explores the unheated apartment in a nondescript Russian building before going outside, where his mother has cautioned him never to go alone.

When you are very young, alone, lost, cold, and hungry, parental admonitions don’t seem to carry much weight — especially when those responsible for you have left the building.

We don’t know why mother and uncle leave Romochka, but this is the starting point of his adventure. Freezing and hungry, Romochka follows a mother dog known to him in time as Momochka to a basement of a deserted church, where she keeps him warm and lets him drink milk from her paps, as she has recently had pups.

These dogs are “feral clan dogs.’’ And in time Hornung declares that Romochka himself “was a dog now,’’ prowling Moscow’s large semirural suburbs with the pack and generally avoiding people except to periodically snatch food from the elderly or drunks. To punctuate this new reality, she writes, “His mother was a dog. His brothers and sisters were dogs. He watched keenly as the young dogs smelled everything in long deep breaths, tails stiff and thoughtful. What could they smell? He tried, but it just smelled like pee.’’

More accurately, Romochka was almost a dog. People and dogs, having animal natures, adapt. To make matters more complicated, Momochka eventually brings home another child to be raised as a canine.

If you are not a dog lover, you may have trouble adapting to this book. There is a great deal of specific material about dogs and pack behavior. Yet one cannot but admire the author’s methodic development of Romochka as “leader of the pack.’’

These are offset against his childhood remembrances of people. There is high tension in Romochka’s deeply felt desire to be near people, and his equally strong, perhaps more strangely basic affiliation with his feral clan.

Romochka has feelings of guilt about these contrary loyalties. Enter Dimitry and Natalya, a scientist and physician, who oversee Romochka’s care and rehabilitation. They appear to be on the case and able to deal with Romochka’s long-term need to readapt to humankind. However, it is astonishing to see how Hornung comes to a resolution at the end.

“Dog Boy’’ offers a dog’s-eye view of the kindness and cruelty of people. It also explores the relationships between humans and animals and finds that we are far more complexly interrelated than it might seem. It is a book of deep imagination written compellingly.

Michael D. Langan, a retired Treasury enforcement official who has written previously for the Globe and the BBC, can be reached at mlangan203@aol.com.

DOG BOY

By Eva Hornung

Viking, 304 pp., $25.95