Today, we are thrilled to welcome Robin Lamont to Our Hen House. Robin, an accomplished writer and the author of our newest favorite novel (which we reviewed on the most recent Our Hen House podcast episode), The Chain (and yep, it is indeed an animal rights related story – and nope, you won’t be able to put it down), is turning the tables and reviewing the novel Dog Boy, by Eva Hornung. Dog Boy tells the story of a homeless kid in Moscow who is adopted by a clan of feral dogs. Don’t miss what Robin Lamont has to say about this novel. From the looks of it, I have another item to add to my list of must-read books about the human-animal relationship. That is perfectly fine with me!
Book Review: “Dog Boy” by Eva Hornung
Review by Robin Lamont
Writer and naturalist Henry Beston wrote of animals, “… they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.”
But what if we could hear them?
In the novel Dog Boy (Viking Adult, 2010), Australian author Eva Hornung gives us the chance to do just that. It is the story of Romochka, a four-year-old boy who is abandoned by his mother and alcoholic uncle in a Moscow tenement. Joining the many thousands of homeless children and adults roaming the streets in the aftermath of perestroika, the boy follows a stray dog to the dog’s den in the cellar of an empty church. There he finds sustenance and warmth with the pack’s leader and six other dogs. His survival depends on becoming a member of the feral pack, and Romochka does just that, assimilating their rules and language as he loses his human ways.
This is an exceptional novel that will stay with me for a long time. Hornung weaves stark, sensory-driven scenes into a captivating story. I was immediately drawn into the world of Romochka’s new family, where the language is that of growls, teeth, scent, and play. The author strictly avoids Disney-like anthropomorphism, often leaving the reader’s senses scraped raw. Yet it is this creative leap that allowed me, like Romochka, to live with the dogs, feel them, know and adore them on their terms. I felt transported and transformed.
On that first morning Romochka gave the puppies names. He surveyed them proudly. Brown, black, white, grey. All his! Then another day he gave them other names. Then he forgot their names and forgot that he had ever looked at them as a boy looks at puppies. Their breath filled the air around him, their bodies warmed him, and they fought with him for their place at the milk. Their weight pressed against him and their tongues left a milky trail on his skin. His hands reached for warm mouths and bellies, scruffs – throwing, wrestling, tongues meeting.
Romochka keeps a name for only one dog – Mamochka – the leader and mother of the pack. A name so similar to his own, it is a reminder stamped into the child’s heart of the mother who left him to die and the mother who now takes care of him – and without whom he would almost certainly die. Indeed, the pack’s life is desperately hard in the ruthless Russian winters. All, including Romochka, must hunt for food, forced from the den onto the streets of Moscow. And though the life is harsh, it is the dog boy’s encounters with humans that prove the most horrifying. Kidnapped and brutalized by a vicious street gang, Romochka prays, “Mamochka, Mamochka, mother, mother, come for me, come for me now. Come quickly and bring all the teeth we have.”
Somehow the boy’s silent plea is heard; it is the nature of the pack to be ever watchful for a missing member. And when, risking their lives, they all come for him, Hornung draws not just an exciting, but an emotionally complex picture of the animal family whose safety resides with the full pack – their collective sense of smell, instinct, and need to protect each member to preserve the whole.
Dog Boy was inspired by the real life story of Ivan Mishukov, a young boy who was found living with wild dogs in Moscow. On the streets, he begged and thieved, sharing his food with one particular pack. They grew to trust him and eventually take him on as their leader. When the police became aware of Ivan’s life, they attempted capture; three times he escaped, fleeing as the dogs defended him. Eventually a trap was set, separating Ivan from the dogs, and the snarling, teeth-baring boy was caught.
Mythical stories of wild children have existed for centuries. In Savage Girls And Wild Boys: A History Of Feral Children, Michael Newton writes of Romulus and Remus, the lost twins at the center of the Roman empire’s foundation myth, who were saved from death by a she-wolf:
In that moment, when the infants’ lips close upon the she-wolf’s teats, a transgressive mercy removes the harmful influence of a murderous culture. The moment is a second birth: where death is expected, succour is given, and the children are miraculously born into the order of nature. Nature’s mercy admonishes humanity’s unnatural cruelty.
For animal lovers, Hornung’s book may be particularly heartrending. It was so for me. Having pulled me thoroughly into Romochka’s world, it then exposed “humanity’s unnatural cruelty” through the eyes of the animals themselves. Yet it is a story of boundless love, crafted with unusual imagination and empathy by a skilled writer. If you have ever yearned to live, even for a moment, with the senses that belong only to animals and to hear their voices, Dog Boy will give you that chance. It is a rare gift.
Robin Lamont’s most recent novel is The Chain, the first in a suspense series featuring an animal rights investigator. Prior to becoming a writer, she worked as an actress, an undercover investigator, and an Assistant District Attorney in Westchester County (in that order). She now writes full time and volunteers for animal advocacy groups. Visit Robin’s website to learn more.