Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Dog Boy by Eva Hornung

If you enjoyed reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy, you'll be able to stomach Dog Boy: A Novel (Viking, 2010) by Australian author Eva Hornung (a pseudonym for Eva Sallis). The Road, which I very much admired, is set in post-apocalyptic America. Dog Boy feels almost as deeply post-apocalyptic, but is set in post-Perestroika Moscow.

When readers first meet Romochka, he knows nothing of dogs. He is alone in an abandoned apartment and does not know where his mother or abusive uncle have gone. There is hardly any food in the apartment and everything of value has been removed. The entire building seems to be vacated. Winter is coming. When he ventures out into the city, he encounters lots of wandering homeless people, both young and old. Danger is everywhere. Somehow he ends up following a wild dog to her lair. He snuggles in with her four puppies, he drinks her milk, and thus begins his apprenticeship as a dog or dog boy. Spending several seasons with the dogs, he becomes skilled at gathering food scraps and hunting. In time he becomes their leader.

The book is brutal. Blood and guts abound. But the story is gripping. I wanted to put it down at first, but had to find out if Romochka lived to tell his tale. Would he ever go back to a more humanlike existence? A campaign to find and poison feral dogs is involved. When the dogs bring a second child, only a baby, back to the lair, Romochka is at first jealous. But his attachment to the babe grows, and the plot thickens. The level of communication between the dogs and Romochka is beautifully developed, but at the same time challenging to read since the the first half of the book has very little spoken dialogue. But the readers' rewards are many, and thus Dog Boy is a book I feel I will never, ever forget.

I've always enjoyed books where children must survive without adults: Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George, Hatchet by Gary Paulsen and The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner (all childrens' titles) come to mind. A school librarian friend recommended Dog Boy (Thank you, Janis!) We are hoping for a sequel.

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