‘Dog Boy’: a lesson in empathy

Dog BoyFlash back five months to when stories were first emerging from Sochi, Russia: the poor hotel accommodations, the relocation of residents, and the killings of hundreds of stray dogs.

Although Eva Hornung’s 2010 novel, “Dog Boy,” takes place in a different Russian city, she describes the clean up well. Under the militzia, “stray dogs and people were bullied to the outskirts and beyond.”

Among them include the book’s hero, Romochka, a four-year-old boy abandoned by his mother and abusive uncle. Cold and starving, Romochka stumbles upon mother dog Mamochka and her litter of puppies. Mamochka takes him in and the litter becomes his brothers and sisters, protecting him from preying humans as he collects scraps for food.

Hornung’s novel is a vicious portrayal of humanity. Romochka’s lucky to have been adopted by dogs rather than humans, she writes more than once.

“No drugs, for starters,” says Hornung. “No glue or petrol. Probably no rapes. Eight-year-olds living in the street were almost invariably victim of all three. And even if they had once been Romochka’s family pets, these dogs had evolved to function as a pack. They were close to being feral, and probably very loyal…. A homeless boy could be a lot worse off, all things considered” (276-277).

Divided into five parts, Hornung’s 290-page book follows the boy-raised-in-the-wild trope well. We’ve seen this with Rudyard Kipling’s novel “The Jungle Book” and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Tarzan and the Apes” series (both have been adapted into animated Disney movies). The theme’s repeated in recent book-to-film adaptions like Laika Entertainment‘s new release “The Boxtrolls.

On one side of the spectrum, “Dog Boy” shows us the fierce loyalty in a pack of wild animals; humans, on the other hand, fight each other for survival and sport. In one gruesome scene, Hornung paints a horrible and disturbing picture straight out of “Lord of the Flies.” A gang of sociopathic boys tie up and torture Romochka the “dog boy” like they would pour salt on a slug.

The bullies would goad him to swear and cry, poking him with sticks and burning him with cigarettes.

Hornung foils these scenes with racism and discrimination. Civilized humans would call Romochka and his dogs “filth” and “animals,” crucifying him as other and foreign. Armed officers of the law would scoff at the idea of feral kids as even human.

“That’s no kid,” says one officer. “That’ll kill my kid given half a chance” (135).

Even as these “humans” alienate Romochka, Mamochka and the dogs show him incredible kindness. Romochka’s “littermates” guard and protect him. Mamochka feeds him milk intended for her puppies. One cold winter, Mamochka kills off her own offspring because food was so scarce and so she would enough milk to feed the human boy.

Don’t get me wrong, Hornung seems to be saying; not all humans are evil. She invents a local chef that feeds Romochka and his dogs leftovers from her kitchen. This is followed by a pair of scientists who work to adopt Romochka. Still, “Dog Boy” is a smart commentary on humanity’s immense capacity for cruelty.

No wonder dogs are man’s best friend.

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