LIANE HANSEN, Host:
Australian writer Eva Hornung takes on this time-honored tale in her new novel, "Dog Boy." More from NPR's Lynn Neary.
LYNN NEARY: One of the cornerstones of Western Civilization was built on the myth of the wild child: The twin Brothers Romulus and Remus, raised by a she- wolf, were the founders of Rome. Then there's Mowgli of "The Jungle Book" fame, now perhaps best known in the Disney version. And, of course, Tarzan, king of the jungle, who in this 1984 film is discovered by a European explorer and educated in the ways of humans.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GREYSTOKE: THE LEGEND OF TARZAN, LORD OF THE APES")
HANSEN: (Acting) And in six months, he has managed to grasp the rudiments of the language. But now I have to convince him of who he is. Indeed, what he is.
NEARY: It is just that question of who, or what, the wild child is 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 fascinates.
A H: A History of Feral Children."
MICHAEL NEWTON: There is a long history of the idealization of such children of nature, as they were sometimes called.
NEARY: Over the years, Newton says, feral children have been both romanticized and victimized. They are, he says, objects of both desire and disgust.
NEWTON: At the same time, they're smelly, they're 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.
NEARY: 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 in recent years was the story of Ivan Mishukov, who lived with a pack of wild dogs in Moscow for two years. It was this story that caught the attention of Eva Hornung.
HORNUNG: What gripped my imagination at the time, I think, is what would grip anyone, is 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.
NEARY: Because Romochka lives in a city instead of a jungle and could already speak before living with the dogs, Hornung envisions him moving between the human world and the dog world as needed.
HORNUNG: I had this notion that Romochka could demonstrate something I know which is the enormous flexibility and mutability of human selfhood. 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.
NEARY: 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. He lives on the outskirts of Moscow, where gangs of homeless children prey on the vulnerable. And the police, who are supposed to protect the innocent, torment them instead. In this excerpt read by Hornung, Romochka has been picked up by the police and retreats completely into being a dog to escape their brutality.
HORNUNG: (Reading) His self was a dog self, a state of known trails, ways and places to be between these boundaries. The present was not good. He thought about it little. He ate glumly, 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, then more often, the snowfall of despair.
NEARY: Feral children, says Michael Newton, are often the victims of abuse. They are abandoned by those who should take care of them, yet when people encounter them they're not accepted as fully human.
NEWTON: These children, on one level, represent really extreme instances of human cruelty. 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 human beings, is suddenly revealed to be more kindly than human beings are themselves.
NEARY: Eva Hornung says her story is not so much about setting animals above humans, but she does want to challenge our ideas about what it means to be human.
HORNUNG: 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.
NEARY: Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
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