This book is nowhere near as cute as you’d expect it to be. And how could it? I remember the real life newspaper articles from ten or fifteen years ago, and you rarely have the happy ever after ending, or the sweet reality that many novels about hardship offer.
Do you recall the little Russian boy who instead of succumbing to drugs while living on the streets, lived with a pack of dogs? This is him, or someone like him. Mishka is only five when his mother mysteriously disappears overnight, and her live-in lover takes the little boy and abandons him in the big city.
From her author’s notes it looks like Bobbie Pyron has read widely about several cases like this, and has a lot of background knowledge to back up her story. This kind of situation was yet another unexpected and unwanted aspect of the fall of the Soviet Union. Mishka’s experience of life on the streets leaves the reader feeling as if it ought to have been a long time ago, whereas the fact that it is recent makes you feel especially bad about it.
Mishka first joins a group of other children, and their ruthless leader, but eventually he lets himself be adopted by seven dogs who roam the city, and whose morals seem far superior to those of the humans he meets.
Being Russia (I think it’s St Petersburg) it gets cold in winter. To begin with Mishka barely has any clothes, but the dogs supply both food and warmth. On occasion they look to the little boy for what they recognise only humans can provide, but mostly the Daddy dog Smoke looks after all his family, and teaches Mishka what he needs to know.
Towards the end of two or three years (both Mishka and I lost count) this boy is more dog than human, although he still talks. He is found by people who ‘help’ him.
As I shivered in my cold(ish) house, I was aware that I could put on as many clothes as I needed. And I had a kitchen full of food, with no need to search other people’s dustbins. I suspect that the neighbourhood dogs here wouldn’t have it in them to do what Smoke and his family do to survive.