Stories about wild children have been around since ancient times. They also pop up every so often in the news. An abandoned child, found living among animals, walking on all fours, unable to speak. They become objects of curiosity, even exploitation.
To Australian writer Eva Hornung, these children are stories of extraordinary survival. Hornung takes another look at this time-honored tale in her new novel, Dog Boy.
Dog Boy is a new entry in a long tradition that dates at least back to an origin myth of a cornerstone of Western civilization. The twin brothers Romulus and Remus, raised by a she-wolf, were the founders of Rome. Mowgli was the hero of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, and the Disney cartoon that followed. Tarzan, the "King of the Jungle," was, in the 1984 film version of the story created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, discovered by a European explorer and educated in the ways of humans.
Dog Boy By Eva Hornung Hardcover, 304 pages Viking Adult List price: $25.95
It is just the question of who, or what, the wild child is — and whether he belongs to civilization or nature — that has intrigued people so much through the ages. Whether the story is pure fiction or based on the discovery of a real child, the idea of a vulnerable human living among animals engenders fascination.
"There is a long history of the idealization of such 'children of nature' as they were sometimes called," says Michael Newton, the author of Savage Girls and Wild Boys: A History of Feral Children. .
Over the years, Newton says, feral children have been both romanticized and victimized. They are, he says, objects of both desire and disgust.
"They are imagined as being visionary beings who are closer to nature than we are, who experience things more fully, who are more passionate, who can live in the moment in ways that rational civilized people can't," Newton says. "At the same time, they are smelly, they are slovenly, they eat horribly, and it's that combination of a desire to be in these children's position and at the same time a kind of recoil from what it would mean really to live as an animal that really goes to the heart of such stories."
Since writing his book, Newton says he is regularly notified of the existence of a "new" wild child. Sometimes these discoveries prove to be hoaxes, but many are not. One of the most famous wild children discovered in recent years was Ivan Mishukov, who lived with a pack of wild dogs in Moscow for two years. It was Ivan's story that caught the attention of Hornung.
"What gripped my imagination at the time, I think, is what would grip anyone," Hornung says. "Imagining a child living with dogs through minus-27-degree winters — with no cooked food, presumably — and with no heating. And so, it got its claws into me, so to speak."
hide captionAustralian writer Eva Hornung published a number of novels under the name Eva Sallis, including Fire Fire.
Australian writer Eva Hornung published a number of novels under the name Eva Sallis, including Fire Fire.
In Hornung's novel, the "Dog Boy" is 4-year-old Romochka. Abandoned by his mother just as Russia's harsh winter is approaching, Romochka finds warmth, nourishment and companionship with a pack of dogs. But Hornung's story is no fairy tale. She has imagined the life of a dog so thoroughly you can almost smell the stench of the den.
Because her wild boy lives in a city instead of a jungle and could already speak before living with the dogs, Hornung envisioned him moving between the world of humans and the world of dogs as he needs to.
"I had this notion that Romochka could demonstrate something I know which is the enormous flexibility and mutability of human selfhood," Hornung says. "Romochka ends up with — not a selfhood that is less than human, but one that is more, that encompasses a kind of doghood as well as a boyhood. And he is able to exploit boyhood or doghood according to where he feels he will have the best chance of survival."
Though Romochka's life with the dogs is brutal, and at times violent, it is his encounters with humans which prove to be the most horrifying. Living on the outskirts of Moscow, where gangs of homeless children prey on the vulnerable, he finds that police torment the innocent instead of protecting them. When Romochka is picked up by the police, he retreats completely into being a dog to escape their brutality.
"He ate glumly," Hornung writes, "fought when there was opportunity, and snarled to comfort himself. Despite this retreat, however, another feeling crept over him, like the season tipping from summer to autumn. It seeped into him, quelling all other feelings. It was sadness, and with it came, first in moments, and then more often, the snowfall of despair."
Feral children, says Newton, are often the victims of abuse. They are abandoned by those who should take care of them, yet when people encounter them they are not accepted as fully human.
"These children, on one level, represent really extreme instances of human cruelty," Newton says. "And then they also transcend that cruelty and it moves into a kind reconciliation with nature. And nature, which is often thought of as hostile to man or human beings, is suddenly revealed to be more kindly than human beings are themselves."
Eva Hornung says her story is not about setting animals above humans. But she did set out to challenge our ideas about what it means to be human.
"I think holding animals at a very great distance from ourselves and seeing ourselves as distinct from animals allows us great freedom in what we do with animals and that fascinates me. It fascinates me that our definition of being human is so flawed," Horning says.
Romochka's rescue at the end of the book raises as many questions as it answers. As he prepares to enter the world of humans once and for all, it is clear that he is leaving an important part of himself behind, in the den he once called home.
Excerpt: 'Dog Boy'
by Eva Hornung
Dog Boy By Eva Hornung Hardcover, 304 pages Viking Adult List price: $25.95
They passed throngs of people who were making their way home or to shops after work but no one stopped the boy or asked his name. He was a boy; his companions dogs. There was nothing to show that he was following, not leading. They looked like three obedient dogs, and he like a boy master — neglected, young to be out alone, but everyone knows without thinking that a person with dogs is not lost.
Three dogs and a boy passed through the populated thoroughfares of the precinct to more deserted lanes. Gates and mesh fences sagged, street walls crumbled. In the distance, apartment blocks were stacked like dishes in a rack, their windows glittering. Close up, weeds filled all gaps. They passed by low buildings with no balconies: offices and warehouses and factory sheds. They passed rows of identical five-storey tenements with cracked tiled facades and a few unkempt birches in the raked yards. They breathed in the smell of cooking onions and cabbage. Inside, people were preparing their evening meals, sitting or moving around in warm rooms, arguing, tired, sipping hot tea or soup.
They slowed only to cross roads or skirt cars or people, then picked up pace again.
A lane opened to a vista with no more streets. Ahead was a meadow filled with oddments of rubbish, ringed with buildings, all unlit: factories or warehouses without people. Then the three dogs did stop and eddy, sniffing in the corner of the street wall and the field fenceposts, moving around the boy, ignoring him. The three dogs peed quickly, here and there. Then they trotted on as purposefully as before. He followed, staggering now. They slipped one after another through a hole in a fence and crossed the meadow through blackened weeds. They made a ragged trail through the icy grass, one track wide and one dainty. At the far side of the field, he stumbled and stopped, swaying on his feet. The lead dog dropped back and waited, looking at him, so he nodded, turned and trudged on.
They squeezed through a gap between a brick wall and a fence post, and then they were among abandoned construction sites. A car passed up the potholed lane and a few scruffy people walked by. A man was lying in a heap against the street wall, asleep. He had been rained on and smelled of wet wool and old urine. The dogs stepped wide around him but otherwise paid no attention.
The boy's strength was almost gone when the mother dog disappeared through a broken gate. They all in turn slipped through into an ancient courtyard. Here there was a tangled mess of dried grass and a dead orchard of five apple trees, their trunks bearded with lichen. Above, a brick facade ended in a broken cupola silhouetted against the sky. It was a church, a blackened and roofless ruin.
The dogs' lair was in the basement. They entered through a hole in the floor and clambered down a pile of rubble along a narrow, much-used path. Inside was dark. Somewhere puppies yelped and yabbered.
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.
At first he didn't notice.
Romochka could see nothing at all. He was assailed by a stench, pungent even in his cold nostrils. Then he made out a wide cellar with holes here and there in the roof. The two younger dogs had flopped down on the floor to one side and were scratching and licking themselves. They didn't seem to have any food. He could see some distance now. His dog had trotted to a far corner and was being greeted with delight by four small puppies. He crept close and squatted on his haunches as she was licked and squealed at. He watched as she lay down and the puppies tumbled over themselves to suckle. He could just make out her dark, shining eyes watching him as the puppies pushed and grizzled. He noted her thick hair, her tidy feet, with pale tufts sticking out between her shadowy toes. She was motherly to the puppies: firm and distant and bossy. He wondered what dog milk tasted like, and edged closer. His stomach gurgled. She watched him steadily. The warmth of the nest, warmth of the squirming bodies, rose to heat his face. He dropped to his hands and knees, to his belly and wriggled towards her. She growled, steady and low, and he stopped. Then he inched closer, again, eyes averted. She was growling softly when he reached her flank and the full heat of the puppies. He curled himself slowly into that warm bed and pulled off his freezing mittens.
He could smell the puppies now, warm and spicy-milky, sucking, sucking. He could smell her too, stinky and comforting.
He didn't move except for an involuntary shivering. She growled on but didn't move either. This growl was for him. But it was a mind your manners growl, not a get out of my sight growl and he waited, minding his manners. Then she stopped and began licking her puppies. She reached over and cleaned his face too. Her tongue was warm and wet, sweet and sour. He licked his lips and tasted her spit and the faint taste of milk. He wormed his cold hand towards her belly and grabbed a puppy. It writhed, grunting in displeasure as he pulled. It took two hands, but in the end he managed to yank it off the teat. The puppy squealed and snuggled, nudged deep and found another. Romochka wriggled himself close, buried his cold nose in the mother dog's hair and sticky skin, and then the hot milk was his. It slid, rich and delicious, down his throat and into his aching belly.
His anxiety floated away and wellbeing seeped through him. After a while his hands warmed up and he reached for her damp belly and stroked her with his fingers as he drank, feeling out her scabs and scars and playing his fingers along her smooth ribs. She sighed and laid down her head.
from Dog Boy by Eva Hornung. Copyright 2010 by Eva Hornung. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.