Our species has long been fascinated by stories of human children raised by wild animals , as the Wikipedia page on feral children attests. I don’t have to strain my memory muscle too hard to come up with (in order of my encountering them) Mowgli, Romulus and Remus, Truffaut’s L’enfant sauvage, and the ‘wolf girls’ Amala and Kamala (about whom we published a story in the School Magazine, not realising the whole story was made up to raise funds for an Indian orphanage). Dog Boy tells one of those stories, and evokes that fascination brilliantly.
On page 15 Eva Hornung gets explicit about the challenge she has taken on:
And so it was, trotting with three dogs through ordinary lanes, past ordinary tenements, past ordinary lives, a lone boy crossed a border that is, usually, impassable – not even imaginable.
The stories of feral children I’ve encountered (add to the list above the Werner Herzog movie about Kaspar Hauser, and Louis Nowra’s first play, Inner Voices, and wasn’t there a Peter Handke play as well?) focus on what happens when the child returns to human society, and chronicle the process of learning, or failing to learn, how to be human. I don’t think I’m giving anything away to say that this book pretty much ends where those stories start. I was given it as a Christmas present with a card suggesting it might help me get in touch with my animal nature. Certainly it was a wonderful book to read while walking a couple of dogs: Eva Hornung may have done extensive research on the ethology of feral dog clans, but it’s very obvious that she has also had intensive personal experience with dogs. There’s a lot I could say about the way the book explores what it is to be human, our relationship with other species, especially dogs, parenthood, love, post-Soviet Russia (the story unfolds mostly in the devastated outer suburbs of Moscow) and so on. But its power is in the way it takes us into the smelling, scratching, snarling world of doghood, as experienced by a small boy who comes to think of himself as a dog but never completely loses his sense of difference.
It’s tremendously moving. There are some major shifts in the narrative, all of which I resisted crankily at first and each of which led me to unexpected places. If my heart has segments, then the book moved systematically through a number of them, and pulled hard at each in turn. Even when, quite a way in, the narrative leaves the dogs’ perspective for a time and actually names some of the story’s precedents, including some listed in my first paragraph, in a kind of metatextual play, the spell isn’t broken. Tightened, if anything.
If, as I do, you ‘accidentally’ skip to the end and read the last sentence, you may think you know how the story ends. Don’t read the second last sentence.
Now, back to packing up the house, carefully not stepping on the dog who is clearly very disturbed by the growing chaos.