When Romochka is four years old, he finds himself all alone and hungry, his mother doesn’t seem to be coming back to him. As he wanders through the streets of Moscow, he sees a dog and starts to follow it. The dog leads him home to its den where it lives with its puppies and their pack. It soon transforms into a second mother for Romochka, and Romochka himself transforms as well as he adapts to his life as a dog.
Dog Boy captures realistically how a child growing up with a wild pack of dogs could play out and packages that into an intriguing story with a strong first half and a weaker second half.
Feral children have held a great fascination for many people, but mostly stories around them look at the result of such an upbringing, what they tell us about the human condition and how they can be reintegrated into human society again. Dog Boy is interested in the becoming instead. The logistics of growing up with a pack of wild dogs and Romochka’s development until he is more or less feral.
Since that’s the heart-piece of the novel, it becomes clear why the second half – when Romochka starts to get back in touch with human society – doesn’t quite pack the punch of the first half anymore and started to drag. Though it’s only part of the reason – the other part is that I simply did not like Dimitri and Natalya, who run a children’s home and hospital and who are confronted with Romochka. Reading about them was rather exhausting, I thought. Had I been in Romochka’s place, I probably would have stayed with the dogs instead.
Romochka on the other hand, was pretty great as a character and he and his development felt absolutely realistic to me, told with a sensitivity both towards children’s development and dogs and their (social) behaviour.
Untypically I read this book in the German translation (since I borrowed it from my mother), so when I say that the language, while being perfectly serviceable, didn’t really blow me away, it’s probably more a comment about the translation than about Hornung’s prose, but the fact remains that I would have loved to read this with a more poetic tone – I think that could have served the story well.
Be that as it may, Dog Boy is stil a pretty good read – and tells an unusual story with a difficult ending.
Summarizing: check it out, especially if you like dogs.