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.
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."
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.
It took Karl Marlantes 30 years to write Matterhorn, an exhaustive and unsparing war novel. Walter Mosley takes up a new detective case in Known to Evil. Also: Dog Boy, fiction inspired by the true story of a feral child, and a new novel about gossipy parents in Brooklyn Heights.
A Novel of the Vietnam War
By Karl Marlantes
As Matterhorn opens, we're introduced to 2nd Lt. Waino Mellas, a Marine Corps reservist who has been sent to Vietnam to lead the First Platoon of Bravo Company in 1969. Mellas is a kid, suddenly charged with leading a group of Marines at war not only with the North Vietnamese army but also with each other and, at times, with themselves. As Mellas adjusts to life in the jungle and the politics of war, racial strife and the Marine command hierarchy, he becomes witness to acts of selfless heroism and episodes of unspeakable violence. He learns a great deal about himself and about brotherhood, but he never really learns what he and his platoon-mates are doing in Vietnam. Marlantes, himself a decorated Marine Vietnam veteran, took 30 years to finish this epic, exhaustive and unsparing novel.
I've laughed at Catch-22 and wept at The Thin Red Line, but I've never encountered a war novel as stark, honest and wrenching as Matterhorn. Marlantes writes with a spare clarity, but he's unafraid to plumb the emotions of the young men in Bravo Company; the icy bravado of Hemingway or Mailer has no place in these pages. The Marines of Matterhorn are both brave and frightened, both committed and resigned. Their common refrain, "There it is," denotes acceptance of some new and unfortunate but unchangeable fact. By turns, this book horrified me, crushed me and beat me up, but I found it nearly impossible to stop reading. More than any living American novelist I've read, Marlantes made me feel what I already must have known: that war is worse than hell. There it is. — Michael Schaub, NPR book reviewer
Hardcover, 592 pages; Atlantic Monthly; list price, $24.95; publication date, March 23
Known to Evil
A Leonid McGill Mystery
By Walter Mosley
This second installment of Walter Mosley's new detective series opens at the dinner table. He gives you a quick look around the room — walnut cabinet, Blue Danube china, old quart pickle jar doing duty as a flower vase — then takes you inside the protagonist's head. That's how a great portion of the story unfolds: through private detective Leonid McGill's inner musings. If you thought Easy Rawlins was a complicated character, spend a little time with McGill as he tries to find a missing woman, avoid police determined to jail him, deal with his imploding marriage, protect his sons from themselves, fend off a move to evict him from his offices and heal from a broken heart administered by an ex-lover.
I loved Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins series and was disappointed when he decided to move on from that well-developed character. But shades of Easy have made their way into the Leonid McGill character, which initially was both good and bad. As I read this tightly packed story in which Mosley displays his usual skill at using the city (in this case, New York) as a secondary character, I couldn't shake the feeling that this was just an updated Easy in a new location. That said, Known to Evil is good reading. As usual, Mosley keeps the twists and turns coming, artfully laying out a string of complications that lead you forward like a kitten chasing yarn. In the end, I think the resemblance to Easy served to make me feel more vested in Leonid McGill. I'm already waiting for the next installment of this mystery series. — Tanya Ballard Brown, NPR digital news editor
Hardcover, 336 pages; Riverhead; list price, $25.95; publication date, March 23
By Eva Hornung
People have long been fascinated by stories of children raised by animals. Some of these stories are works of pure fiction: Think Mowgli of The Jungle Book, or Tarzan of the Apes. But Dog Boy was inspired by a real story. Author Eva Hornung read a news item about a young boy who had been living with a pack of wild dogs in Moscow. In her novel, that boy becomes Romochka, a 4-year-old abandoned by his mother just as Russia's harsh winter is approaching. He finds shelter, warmth, nourishment and companionship with a pack that has built a den in the ruins of an old church. The story is told almost entirely from Romochka's perspective. And though his life with the dogs is brutal and, at times, violent, the most horrifying parts of this story prove to be his encounters with humans.
This is no fairy tale where a young child romps with wild animals who seem almost human in their affection for a vulnerable human. Hornung has imagined the life of a dog so thoroughly, you can almost smell the stench of the den. But she also makes it possible to understand how a young child would curl up next to a pile of puppies to drink their mother's milk and get warm lying next to her furry body. And she makes you believe that a child taken in by dogs might even survive in a harsh landscape on the edges of a major city, where the homeless pick through a mountain of garbage for food and clothing. This is also a place where gangs of wild homeless children prey on the vulnerable, and the police, who are supposed to protect the innocent, torment them instead. Stories of feral children have always raised perplexing questions about what it means to be human and what it means to be an animal. Hornung has created such a vivid and believable world for her pack of dogs that she takes those questions to a new level. — Lynn Neary, NPR books and publishing correspondent
Hardcover, 304 pages; Viking; list price, $25.95; publication date, March 18
By Peter Hedges
Peter Hedges has long had one foot in cinema and the other in literature. He adapted his novel What's Eating Gilbert Grape into a successful film, and Hedges received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay of About a Boy. The Heights is his first novel in a decade, and it takes place in a less provincial setting than the Iowa countryside of his earlier books. Brooklyn Heights, just across the river from Manhattan, is a place where, as one of the protagonists puts it, "You can't be bored because of the view." Hedges tracks the unfolding lives of gossipy parents known to the book's protagonists as "Mom with Moxie," "Mom Who Knows More About You than You Do" and even "Mom with a Beard." He bounces the narrative voice back and forth between Tim and Kate, husband and wife, as a glamorous newcomer moves into the Heights and pulls the Brooklynites into her orbit.
An article in The New Yorker described Brooklyn as a place 'where parents recently won the right to bring strollers into a local bar.' That was the neighborhood of Park Slope, but the description could just as easily have applied to Brooklyn Heights, which is as much a character in The Heights as any human being. Given Hedges' background in film, a movie of The Heights seems practically certain. So let's imagine: The main characters, Tim and Kate, will be played by an appealingly dweeby actor and his more attractive wife — maybe Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker. It will be an inoffensive dramedy that resonates with ennui-ridden married yuppies who daydream about straying beyond the confines of their wedding vows. I might watch it on an airplane. — Ari Shapiro, NPR justice correspondent